Andrea Rogers: Shaping the Flynn through the years (9/3/09)

Sept. 3, 2009

By Susan Green

Observer correspondent

Although Andrea Rogers is now “thinking of a timetable for retirement,” many people may be unable to fathom anyone else as executive director and chief executive officer of Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

She’s been involved with the Main Street building, constructed in 1931, since it was first imagined as a multi-purpose cultural venue 30 years ago. On her watch, the place has blossomed with a dynamic year-round schedule of live music, dance and dramaturgy.

At 69, Rogers also maintains a pivotal presence in the larger Vermont arts community and beyond.

“Andrea’s been very active with the League of Historic American Theaters,” noted Flynn board member Brianne Chase of Shelburne. “When I began going to some of the national meetings with her, I realized how much she’s held in esteem around the country.”

From her rectangular office overlooking City Hall Park, Rogers enumerates the twists of fate that brought her to this point in life.

Although not the career path she envisioned while growing up in “the hardware capital of the world” — aka New Britain, Conn. — the arts certainly were in her blood from an early age.

“I played piano,” Rogers said. “My younger brother plays banjo. We sailed a lot and we’d always sing sea chanteys.”

With her father, who managed a valve manufacturing company, she even periodically belted out “bawdy songs.”

At the Northfield (boarding) School in Massachusetts, Rogers participated in the choir. She later attended the University of Michigan, majoring in French, history and the history of art.

After graduation in 1962, Rogers held a series of positions, including assistant to the president with the New York-based American Field Service. This nonprofit volunteer service promotes learning opportunities on an international scale. With travel part of her job description, she visited Europe, Thailand and Chile.

But in 1970 Rogers left the Big Apple and, through an aunt who lived in Williston, found work as director of prevention for the Vermont Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

“I started hotlines,” she said. “Like President Obama, I was a community organizer.”

As such, Rogers oversaw the agency’s representatives within the mental health system.

“Everyone called them Andy’s Dandies,” she said with a laugh.

Dandy, yes. Lifelong commitment, no.

“I didn’t have that passion,” Rogers said, referring to the emotional drive that makes an occupation more of a calling.

So when an opening was announced in 1974 to run the University of Vermont Church Street Center at Burlington’s old Firehouse, Rogers took a leap of faith.

“I had to imagine what it was going to be,” she said. “We began with 100 mini-courses and workshops. We offered art classes, exhibits, poetry readings, yoga, story writing.”

Initially, this sort of non-traditional education was not available elsewhere, but then bookstores and libraries started to host readings and health centers had yoga instruction.

“So it was a less unique role than before,” Rogers said. “I felt as if it was time to go.”

Before quitting in 1980, she had already been busy with various initiatives. A survey had determined the city’s greatest need in terms of space. The answer: A mid-sized hall, for events that required a more intimate setting than the cavernous Memorial Auditorium. So Rogers joined forces with groups, including those interested in historic preservation, to explore purchasing the Flynn — at its inception, an art deco movie palace and vaudeville house — with a 1,400-seat capacity.

She was toying with the idea of a run for the state Legislature, but ultimately agreed with husband Avery Hall — they had married in 1974 and Rogers helped raise three stepchildren — that it might not be such a good idea.

Instead, she began writing grant proposals for the Flynn project, an effort that was embraced by local groups such as Lyric Theatre. Although compensated for her efforts, Rogers said she never imagined “I’d end up being on the staff.”

Yet she and her colleagues raised about $1 million that allowed the Flynn to open its doors in September 1981. Rogers served as the capital fund director for the first year. The second phase of the Flynn fundraising campaign targeted an upgrade of the dressing rooms and other backstage improvements.

In 1983, Rogers was designated executive director and has since become responsible for a $6 million-plus annual budget and a 32-person staff. She co-founded the annual Discover Jazz Festival, among other enduring programs, and created Flynn student matinees.

“In the late 1980s, our new mission statement called for artistic leadership and excellence, as well as community engagement,” said Rogers, whose own leadership style appears to inspire confidence.

“She’s a totally remarkable woman,” said Chase, on the board for 20 years. “Andrea came to the Flynn when it was a fledgling organization. It grew and she grew. That was essential, in order to manage all of the complexities. She has a wonderful grasp of whatever she needs to know, from building materials to business principles to human resources to technology to box office procedures.”

Moreover, Rogers seems adept at drumming up support.

“Andy’s a superlative fundraiser,” Chase said. “She knows everybody and she knows them because she loves people.”

About a dozen years ago, more necessary cash flowed her way.

“We needed air-conditioning and had to get rid of $1 million in debt that had never been paid off in the 1980s,” Rogers said. “We had to raise another $3 million.”

As the 21st century approached, the Ford Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation handed out millennial challenge grants. The Flynn was selected as one of only 16 recipients nationwide for the Duke largess and among 30 for the Ford money — making it the sole entity in the U.S. to qualify for both.

This bonanza provided the resources to acquire a connected structure next door. The expansion encompasses a gallery, a dance studio, an area for educational activities and FlynnSpace, a 200-seat performance facility.

Now at the height of professional success, Rogers is looking to the future.

“I want to spend more time with my 97-year-old mother in Wake Robin,” she said, referring to the Shelburne retirement complex. “And focus more on piano, garden, take courses.”

Travel beckons, but being unemployed would also permit Rogers to just relax at the Charlotte camp she shares with her husband, a retired engineer.

Meanwhile, she continues to perform with the Oriana Singers of Vermont, which has benefited from her alto voice for almost three decades. Presumably, not with a single bawdy song.