John Killacky: Burlington art scene has roots in the ’80s

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John R. Killacky, who is executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. This piece was originally published in the May issue of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Experience Burlington, Vermont and Beyond.

Burlington has long been a hotbed for the arts. Memorial Auditorium opened in 1927 and hosted amazing concerts over the years before its closing last year. The extraordinary UVM Lane Series began presenting in 1955, Lyric Theatre performed its first musical in 1974, and Nectar’s opened that same year.

However, the 1980s were a catalytic decade for the growth of local arts. The renovated Flynn Theatre opened in 1981, dedicated to “the people of the region: to be a forum for a lively variety of entertainment.”

Also in 1981, Mayor Bernie Sanders established the Mayor’s Arts Council to “make the arts available to all, regardless of social, economic, or physical constraints.” By 1983, an office was established in a janitor’s closet in the basement of City Hall; in 1990, the City Council formally established Burlington City Arts (BCA).

The Flynn’s reopening and BCA’s nascent beginnings coincided with the 1981 completion of the Church Street Marketplace. The Flynn now serves over 200,000 people each season, including 38,000 students from 172 schools and 196 homeschool families, and over 130,000 arts lovers participate in BCA’s gallery exhibitions and multidisciplinary programs. Imagine downtown Burlington without the Flynn, BCA and Church Street Marketplace!

Today, summer festivals abound, new galleries thrive, theater companies flourish, musicians play in multiple clubs, and choreographers continue to dance — all on the bedrock of the formative 1980s.


Another long-lasting venture that flourished: In 1983, the Flynn collaborated with BCA to produce the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, now gearing up for its 34th annual festival in June, with 110 hours of free music for more than 70,000 attendees. And on Dec. 31, 1983, downtown Burlington inaugurated the annual First Night festival.

Phish played the first of many performances at Nectar’s in 1984 and in 1986, artists and neighborhood merchants banded together to form the Greater Pine Street Association setting the stage for the South End Arts and Business Association (SEABA). SEABA’s annual South End Art Hop, now draws over 30,000 visitors each fall. This summer, BCA relocates its print and clay studios to a new space on Pine Street, adding even more vibrancy to this neighborhood.

Memorial Auditorium was robustly busy throughout the ‘80s. UVM Lane series brought in such world greats as Itzhak Perlman, Marcel Marceau, Tokyo String Quartet, Judy Collins, London Symphony Orchestra, and Nina Simone. Independent producer Jay Strausser booked numerous reggae bands, Ray Charles, and, in 1991, presented the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins with a then unknown opening band, Pearl Jam.

Burlington’s artistic community has grown exponentially since the ‘80s. Frog Hollow opened its Church Street craft gallery in 1991. The Flynn expanded with the smaller FlynnSpace in 2000, home to Vermont Stage and other local artists. On the lakefront, ECHO opened in 2003 with Main Street Landing following with its two theaters in 2005. In the Old North End neighborhood, North End Studios began programming 2008 and Off Center for the Dramatic Arts opened in 2010, among many other venues.

Today, summer festivals abound, new galleries thrive, theater companies flourish, musicians play in multiple clubs, and choreographers continue to dance — all on the bedrock of the formative 1980s.

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