Stepping Up | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Culture » Performing Arts

Stepping Up

The new director of the Flynn brings people skills and horse sense


Published July 21, 2010 at 6:04 a.m.

The early-morning fog is just beginning to burn off as John Killacky arrives at Windswept Farm in Williston. He’s come to the stables, as he does most mornings around 6:30, to tend to his pony, a Shetland named Pacific Raindrop. While Raindrop is happy to see him, anticipating a little exercise, fresh hay and water — and, of course, a few treats — Killacky is utterly delighted to see her.

He straps on a light harness and leads the pony — a roan pinto 42 inches tall — out to a pasture for a quick green snack. “She can eat this for about 15 minutes,” Killacky says. “She’s still getting used to the grass here. Plus, she’s like a vacuum cleaner. She’d eat it all if we let her.”

Then Killacky tries to demonstrate some tricks she’s learning, but the little horse isn’t quite ready to show off.

Raindrop has been in Vermont just a few weeks, and she’s still getting used to lots of things. The same could be said of her owner: Killacky, 58, moved to Burlington last month from San Francisco and began his new job as executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts on June 21. That’s when the Flynn’s first and only previous director, Andrea Rogers, passed the torch after 30 years.

Killacky had held his previous job, as program manager of the philanthropic San Francisco Foundation, since 2003. He also picked up an equine passion in California: country pleasure driving. That’s a style of competition in which a horse or pony pulls a driver on a small cart, changing its gait in response to the driver’s commands. When Killacky left California, the owners of the stable he’d frequented gifted him with Raindrop.

Having a pony of his own fulfills a childhood dream, he says. It also “connects me with this joyful part of my life with my father,” Killacky says, and explains that his dad, with whom he had a “volatile” relationship, used to sell cattle at the Chicago stockyards. “The best time we had was going to the farm together,” he says.

But, for Killacky, having a pony and the opportunity to compete — 3-year-old Raindrop will be ready for that in another year — is much more than a simple pleasure. It “gave me my legs back,” he declares.

John Killacky does have legs, and the use of them; he can manage short distances unaided, and longer ones with a cane. It takes a close observer to see that his gait is slightly uneven, his steps deliberate. It’s a miracle — or a testament to his will — that Killacky can do any of this.

Fourteen years ago, while he was curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a tumor was discovered inside his cervical spine. Though benign, it had to be removed. Killacky woke up from surgery to find himself a paraplegic. The experience, he says, was “a nightmare.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more devastating turn of events, but Killacky didn’t take it lying down. “Eventually I was able to move a finger, then an arm,” he says, lauding his “very good treatment” at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis. “Then I could sit up, but I had to be helped to get into a wheelchair.”

One day, while being transferred to the chair, Killacky noticed that he momentarily stood by himself, and he was struck with an idea. “I’d been a dancer for 10 years,” he says, “and I always looked in the mirror for feedback. So I asked for a mirror [in rehab]. I thought I could learn to stand.”

After another two weeks of work, he did. “My dancer training got me to stand up,” Killacky says. “My marathon training got me to keep going.”

It took another three months before he could walk — with a cane and a leg brace, since discarded. But, 14 years later, Killacky still exhibits Brown-Séquard syndrome, a loss of feeling and motor skills resulting from a cut spinal cord. “My proprioception is lost,” he says matter of factly, “and I have no hot or cold sensation on the right side, even though it ‘came back’ first.”

This is why a man accustomed to intense physical conditioning says the ponies have given him legs. It’s just that the pony is doing the trotting.

Killacky notes that working with horses also has given him “a sense of wholeness,” and that’s a feeling he observed upon moving to Vermont as well. “I’ve had great jobs, and I’ve loved them,” he says, “but here I feel my life is integrated.” In California, he says, the stable was an hour and a half away. Now, from his apartment in Burlington, he can be at Windswept Farm in 20 minutes.

Killacky has another reason to feel “integrated” in Vermont: He’s a gay, married man. He and Larry Connolly, an editor for the literary journal Memoir and a fiction writer, had had a domestic partnership for nearly 12 years when California began granting same-sex marriage licenses, in June 2008. Killacky wasn’t convinced a wedding was necessary — “until we walked into city hall [in October], and there were 40 couples all getting married at once,” he says.

“It was profound,” Killacky says. “People were lining the stairwells, all kinds of couples; it was very moving.” But history abruptly changed course less than three months later, when the voters approved Proposition 8 defining “marriage” exclusively as a bond between a man and a woman. A federal suit was filed against Prop. 8 immediately, but until and unless the Supreme Court rules that it violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and due process, “we are one of those 18,000 couples in limbo in California,” Killacky says.

In Vermont, of course, same-sex marriages are legal. “It’s a civil right,” Killacky states firmly, “and that’s what I learned in [San Francisco] city hall.”

Killacky and Connolly didn’t know then that, two years later, they’d be moving to a state where gay marriage is indisputably legal. But when the Flynn offer appeared, Killacky says, “I felt called to come to Vermont.”

He was already familiar with the Flynn, having “often partnered” with its previous artistic director Philip Bither; one co-commission was the Bill T. Jones dance piece “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Later, Bither replaced Killacky at the Walker, where he has been senior curator since 1997.

Killacky’s career trajectory could hardly have been predicted from his degree: a BA in psychology and education from Hunter College in 1977. And, though he’d danced for a decade, he soon decided he could be more successful in arts administration. His first two positions were in familiar milieu: Killacky became director of the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians in 1980, followed by the Trisha Brown Dance Company in 1983. In those relatively small organizations, he had the opportunity to hone skills in everything from tour booking to marketing to financial management. All of which served Killacky well when he made a leap to general manager of PepsiCo Summerfare, the (now-defunct) performing-arts festival at SUNY Purchase with a budget of nearly $2 million.

Financially speaking, the next rung in Killacky’s ladder was a steep one: From ’86 to ’88, he was the program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit granting organization whose culture budget alone was some $23 million. Killacky’s role was to develop policies and guidelines for applications, as well as to evaluate proposals in the arts.

Next: the Walker, where Killacky worked until 1996. While there, the master multitasker also taught classes in dance, theater and studio arts at the University of Minnesota, had frequent speaking gigs, wrote for a multitude of publications and participated — as curator or performer — in numerous multimedia projects.

During his final year in Minneapolis, Killacky met his life partner, suffered the ill-fated surgery and got a new job offer. And that’s when Connelly asked him: “Would you rather be in a wheelchair in Minneapolis or San Francisco?”

Killacky took the position as executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. With a budget of $7.4 million, his résumé indicates, he was “responsible for artistic direction, budget planning and control, organizational planning, fundraising, staff management, public relations, audience development, and community relations” — not so very different from the scope of his responsibilities at the Flynn. Killacky stayed at Yerba Buena for seven years, then moved to the San Francisco Foundation for another seven. During this period, he relearned how to use his body, took up with ponies, and became a filmmaker “on the side.” One he’s particularly proud of is Janis Ian: Live from Grand Center, produced in 2008. Over the next few years, Killacky confides, he plans to make a documentary about choreographer Trisha Brown.

Killacky augmented his professional growth, too, with training in leadership and nonprofit management. This year, he attended the Salzburg Global Seminar for a program titled “The Performing Arts in Lean Times: Opportunities for Reinvention.”

This seems par for the course: Killacky says he enjoys being “at the bottom of a learning curve.” Referring to both pony training and heading an arts organization, he says, “It’s fun to do something that takes a long time to do, learning incremental skills — it’s deeply satisfying.” And since his traumatic physical experience, Killacky adds, “I don’t sweat the small stuff.”

This equilibrium and sense of purpose augur well for Killacky’s leadership style at the Flynn. He comes to it in a time of economic downturn, but says the organization is robust, and he intends to keep it that way. He describes his commitment in three parts: to the artistic programming — he raves about the season artistic director Arnie Malina has put together this year; to the educational programming; and to local artist development. On the last point, Killacky says, “Arnie and I have been talking about how we can move some local artists onto the national stage.”

Another of Killacky’s goals is to enhance the Flynn’s online presence. “We’re still a one-way institution: ‘Come see/do this,’” he says. “I’m interested in whether we can build an interactive relationship — I want it to be less about us and more about them,” he says of the patrons, students and artists who use the facility.

Killacky’s bent toward forming what he calls “authentic relationships” is confirmed in an April San Francisco Chronicle article announcing his departure from the San Francisco Foundation. Director Sandra Hernández told the paper that Killacky “transformed the regional arts scene” and “forged meaningful partnerships.” The Chronicle reporter adds that Killacky has been “an indefatigable community builder.”

Killacky himself states modestly that his mission is to serve artists, but his target audience in Vermont is likely to be … everyone.

After a “smooth” transition into his new job, Killacky says, “everyone here is taking a breath together, looking at what we can do perhaps differently, but we’ll build on our assets.” He believes in putting one foot in front of the other while also envisioning the future. “If you only look at right now,” he says, “you’ll only take one step.”

Meanwhile, Killacky anticipates stepping — on his own and with his pony — into his first snowy winter in a long time. “I’m a three-legged man,” he jokes. “I’ll be fine.” Raindrop’s job? To grow a warm coat of fur. Both will be learning new tricks.

Related Stories