Meet Jay Wahl, Executive Director at The Flynn: A vision for the arts in Vermont during and after COVID-1903/10/2021 11:31AM ● By Molly Ritvo
While many local organizations are coming up with innovative ways to survive and possibly pivot during the pandemic, the Flynn has found a way to thrive. In December of 2020, the Flynn board of directors announced the organization’s newest executive director: Jay Wahl, a charismatic and down-to-earth arts aficionado who is thrilled to be in Vermont. As he settled into his new home in downtown Burlington fresh from a move from Pennsylvania, Best of Burlington had a chance to connect with him. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Best of Burlington: What do you love most about the arts?
Jay Wahl: The arts have really unique magical powers. It transports the audience and allows us to connect with a part of ourselves we have forgotten, or perhaps a part of ourselves that we overlook. The arts remind us of ways to find acceptance and forgiveness within ourselves and others, and hopefully with strangers in the audiences together. I think that COVID or not, the arts still do that, and still have a responsibility to do that, and still have the power to do that.
BOB: How has the pandemic changed the performing arts? What will be different when audiences can gather?
JW: I think we’ve all become a little more sensitive and aware that the words of our lives in the past year have been words of restriction. We've thought about places we can’t go, or behaviors we can't do, or things that won't happen, or quarantines we have to maintain. The arts have often been about ways in which we break through restrictions. I think one of the best gifts that COVID gave us all is an appreciation for public space and the ways in which the places that we can gather—or even be alone in public space—and how important those places are to us. COVID is showing how the arts have a way of catalyzing public space to create dialogue. Because we haven't been having those kinds of dialogue, there's something missing. And so, we're sort of searching for that.
BOB: There has been so much anger and misunderstanding in our world over the past four years, in addition to COVID. How do the arts help us navigate such uncertainty and unrest?
JW: The arts have been my place to learn about other people, to learn about stories that aren't my story, and to legitimize the experience of other perspectives and other bodies. I watched somebody get on stage and tell their story, and then, the moment that they do that, I cannot deny that they have humanity. And when we stop sharing those stories, due to COVID or whatever other reason, it's easier to deny other people's humanity, because we're caught in our own little bubbles where we don't really encounter other perspectives and we don't have to watch another body. I'm not trying to be political in that sense, but it's not accidental that when governments historically are trying to limit thinking or limit behaviors of populations, one of the first things they do is restrict the arts.
BOB: What do you think Vermonters need now, in terms of art?
JW: I've been thinking a lot about what we need. One of the things we need right now are opportunities for collective mourning, what I'll call grief rituals. We're bereft of that at the moment because we can't gather, we don't have funerals. The things that we do as a society, to support each other, many of those tools are sort of missing. The arts have got to find a way to fill that because we need that. We need collective mourning, we need to acknowledge what we've lost and who, and how heartbreaking that is. This sounds dark, but I do look forward to providing tools for people to have access to emotions that are hard to access. Also, we need fun!
BOB: You worked as the artistic director at the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts for 11 years. Can you share a highlight of your work there?
JW: I really thought about ways that we could connect the arts, and people, and community, and stories without fear of restriction. I plan to do the same at the Flynn. A highlight during my tenure at the Kimmel was starting a jazz residency program and helping create the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which was a citywide art festival that brought all sorts of partnerships together. My methodology was always to partner an international artist with a local artist and try to help that mentorship happen with an audience. I brought the Indigo Girls to play with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
BOB: Public space is important to you. How have you used public space to create art?
JW: Art in public space is something I care deeply about. I really am interested in the intersection between art and civic dialogue. I had this real belief around the democracy of arts and how that one of the challenges with concerts often is that some people have good seats, and some people do not, and that really bothers me. So I was able to have a whole band perform in a crane above the street! 200,000 people saw a concert and all had the same view.
BOB: Until Vermonters can gather at the Flynn, what is your hope for our readers?
JW: I hope many of us have been able to rediscover things they like because that just helps us reconnect to ourselves. The arts have this magical power ability to connect us to ourselves.