Burlington’s Flynn Center for the performing arts is now The Flynn.Regardless of the nom du jour, the state’s largest presenter attracted some 200,000 people each year to attend events on its main stage and intimate Flynn Space, while an average of 35,000 young people attended more than 30 student matinee performances annually. And thousands more attended Flynn classes and summer camps.
That was until March — and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re certainly not up and running — we’re technically closed,” explained Steve McQueen, The Flynn’s artistic director since 2012.
“We’re offering a lot of classes, all virtual,” he said. “We’re not doing anything in the building. We did outdoor shows in the summer — but now it’s November.”
The Flynn’s experience was pretty much the same as all performing arts institutions in Vermont, only much bigger.
“We had to do some emergency activities,” McQueen said. “We had to shut down the building, cancel the rest of our series. We’ve had to let go about a third of our full-time workforce — which was pretty traumatic and terrible.”
Also, like just about everyone else, they were naïve about the future.
“The national response was terrible,” McQueen said. “We were talking about the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. We couldn’t do it in June; maybe by August we could do it. We’re still reeling. Jazz Fest in 2021 is certainly not 100% guaranteed at all; it may be 50-50.”
The Flynn, like the rest of us, is now living in a time of uncertainty.
“What’s positive for us is it has allowed us to come together as an organization, those of us that are still there,” McQueen said. “We’re super-tight; we’re all into Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) in ‘Let’s Put on a Show’.”
The Flynn has taken this hiatus of performances to redefine the organization and create a new look. The new brand is designed to reflect the theater’s world-class performances and its positive impact on its community.
During the past year, the Flynn has been working behind the scenes with its branding and design partner, Ruthless & Wellington (R+W), a women-owned branding and design studio in Burlington. A statewide research and discovery process that gathered perspectives from more than 1,700 Vermonters reaffirmed the status of the Flynn within the region’s arts community.
“The rebranding is something we’ve had in mind for a long time,” McQueen said. “They (R+W) really immersed themselves in what we do for five years to come up with a new look and a new feel.”
The work all happened pre-COVID.
“We were all set to announce it in March when COVID hit,” McQueen said. “We put it on the back burner for awhile. Our new website came out, so I figured we might as well bring it out and share it with everybody.”
The new website has been redesigned so visitors can do everything in one place — buy tickets, sign up for a class, or discover a new artist at www.flynnvt.org. A new logo was inspired by the iconic marquee. Names like FlynnArts and FlynnTix are being phased out in favor of more straightforward language.
“Right now it’s a matter of figuring out who we are and how we get there,” McQueen said.
For now, everything will remain online. Virtual classes have been offered since the beginning of the pandemic.
“This last semester, we did an in-person dance class in the park,” McQueen said. “It didn’t do well at all, whereas every virtual class we had going at the same time did very well.”
And The Flynn will offer its first virtual concert Dec. 12, Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy Virtual Christmas.
“In terms of doing virtual shows, it’s about staying out there,” McQueen said.” It’s about staying relevant and doing what you do — it’s also about supporting artists, which is a huge mission of the Flynn. We’re doing what we can.”
The Flynn’s finances are fragile but safer than many nonprofit arts organizations.
“The Flynn has had such incredible community support from the start,” McQueen said. “We have an endowment, and we have a loan that’s going to help us through. We’re not doing any shows, so the revenue’s nonexistent. We’ve had sponsors for the shows we tried to do.”
Most of its national funders, like the National Endowment for the Arts, and Vermont funding organizations, allowed the Flynn the to keep money for projects canceled by the pandemic.
“Everybody’s been really understanding,” McQueen said. “Our interim executive director, Charlie Smith, came in, and he’s a banker. He was really able to build a solid foundation for us to survive — if not thrive.”
As to the future, The Flynn expects to have a new executive director by January.
“So a lot of that depends on what they want to do,” McQueen said. “That’s very much wait and see. I’m interested in how they will want to move forward. It’s been a group effort so far, so I really don’t know until we get our new director in.”
Long term, despite changes, McQueen expects the focus to be on the community.
“When we come back, I think we’re going to come back really strong,” McQueen said. “With the summer outdoor Hurly Burly series, we really drilled down on the community piece.
“I don’t know exactly what that will look like or what that means yet,” he said. “It has to a really integral part of its city and county — and state.”