Tell me a story: Jon Khoury

About two years ago, when both of us were still working at the Independent, my friend Edie Adelstein wowed me with her story on Jon Khoury, executive director of Cottonwood Center for the Arts. Edie’s reporting introduced me and much of the city to a guy who was transforming a local arts institution — and, to some extent, the arts community — by force of will.

Since then, Jon has kept doing what he does. In early October, he received the Arts Champion of the Year Award from the Pikes Peak Arts Council. Later that month, Cottonwood launched Textiles West, a beautiful creative hub for fiber artists. Just last week, Cottonwood announced a two-year, $15,000 grant from Colorado Creative Industries.

Jon Khoury

Curious as to how he fuels all this, I recently asked Jon for a little slice of his personal history.

He is quick to note that he did all kinds of work in his early life — from delivering newspapers to cooking breakfast for the New York Rangers hockey team at Rye Playland. Always, his goal was “to make absolutely as much impact on individuals and humanity as I could, via my job.”

“Pumping gas for someone,” he says, “I could go out there every time and make someone’s day, talking to them while I’m pumping their gas and changing their oil at 12 and 13 years old.”

How does a kid come to believe that his voice can have that kind of power?

“I think it probably came from my mother,” he says. “We grew up in the ’60s and went to every peace protest during the Vietnam era. The Vietnam War was so real. Growing up in the ’60s was so real. Nothing went by that wasn’t questioned. … That came directly from growing up in the late ’60s, right off the assassination of John Kennedy and up until when his brother was killed in California in ’68, which I remember really, really well. But the whole idea was that you did not have to accept what you were told.”

Times changed, but the need for pushback certainly didn’t. Talking about another area of the media, Jon says that even today, “Every single commercial’s based in fear. You know, Your breath’s bad, your feet stink, your back’s gonna hurt … My goal has been to literally turn those things completely over and say, “You’re perfect exactly as you are.”

While leading a successful professional career in New York, Jon coached high school sports for nearly 30 years. He found soccer fields and baseball diamonds to be excellent laboratories for testing the potential of his positive thinking. “It was just this kind of first real place where I could begin to kind of disseminate some of these ideological thoughts about how you could approach life, via sports. But even if it wasn’t sports, I still would have found a way to do it.”

Today, it’s as much a part of Jon Khoury as his endless reserve of energy. And since he arrived in 2012, Cottonwood has been all the better for it.

“I happened to land in the arts because it’s a place where [people are] trying to express themselves and they’re not being heard — and that seems to go well with my personality,” he says. “But the truth is, I could be running a McDonald’s and feeling that I’m achieving the same thing. … It’s what makes me really able to get out of bed, no matter what the circumstance is, whatever the job has been.”