Andromeda: From the million-dollar Loft to the basement-based CityLit, models abound

On my trip last week to Seattle and Denver, I had a great time meeting directors of many Lower 48 Writing Centers. I also discovered that these centers have their own combined organizational identity as part of the “WC & C” (Writing Centers and Conferences) component of the 34,000-writer strong “AWP” (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). The WC & C is a great source for 49writers to tap into, and we’ll keep that connection growing.

Meanwhile, forgive the acronyms, and let me highlight two specific writing centers that may inspire some thinking about what an Alaska writing center could become.

At the high-end, we have the Loft, based in Minneapolis. Founded in 1975, this center is the nation’s oldest and largest. With a budget of $2 million a year, it serves thousands of writers, via a wide range of multi-genre writing classes, and engages thousands more writers in readings and other events. The Loft also produces publications, sponsors competitions, rents out studio space, and supports writers and readers in so many ways you could peruse their website for several hours and still not know all that they do.

Now, Minneapolis is much bigger than Anchorage, but I find it amazing and inspiring nonetheless that our nation’s most vibrant literary organization is centered in the land of Garrison Keillor, rather than, say, Manhattan. Equally surprising is the humble nature of the Loft’s origins. The center started in a room over a bookstore, where a poet began to offer writing workshops. That was 1974. Unable to continue to afford the rental cost of the room, the poet and friends decided to form a club — which became a nonprofit the next year. At their first fundraiser, the little group sold 100 memberships at $15 a person. Over the years, there would be many more fundraisers, many physical moves to various modest facilities, with countless illustrious writers on-board for the ride.

But the Loft is only one model of what a writing center can be. Let me tell you about one newbie organization with a less-than-$100,000 budget, and no permanent facility at all. (A center-less writing center, as it were.) CityLit of Baltimore also serves writers and readers, and sponsors innovative programming — include four ‘anchor’ programs: a literary festival, year-round writers’ workshops, and two youth programs. The six-year-old nonprofit is run out of the basement of its founder, Gregg Wilhelm, with the help of an intern, volunteers, and a very active board.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s one thing to read about an organization on the web, and another to meet its founders or current staff in-person. Face to face, you sense the energy, the organizational pride, and the passion for literature and the arts that makes these people tick. But you also see that they’re just people. In the case of founders, they saw a need, or they had an idea, and they ran with it.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting both The Loft’s Executive Director, Jocelyn Hale, and CityLit’s Gregg Wilhelm. Here are just a few tips they had for 49writers and a future Alaska writing center:

From Jocelyn:
Beware “Death by Opportunity.” You can’t take on every possible project in the beginning, or you’ll weaken your organization. Focus on strengths (for example, offering great writing workshops) and build slowly.

Build a brand from the very beginning and trademark your name.

Do everything online, from the beginning — for example, billing for memberships.

By the way, Jocelyn added (kindly) that we’re lucky to be young and new to the world of writing centers. Older centers have had a harder time, in some cases, adapting to the world of blogging, social media, and so on. Ideally, a start-up can innovate with greater ease.

From Gregg:
Start a strong database that tracks all members, participants, and so on — don’t wait until you’re several years old to do this. (He described how his works and how it relates to his newly designed website.)

Don’t forget why you’re doing this — to offer exciting and innovative programming. CityLit has received recognition for its exciting lit festival from its first year, and more recently, it added a “Lit’s Not Dead” rock-and-read concert for ages 18-34 as a way to encourage more reading in that demographic.

Jocelyn and Gregg had much more to say, of course. But the most important thing they both said was: “Keep in touch.” Alaskans should know that there are great organizational connections out there, including nonprofit experts and entrepreneurial whizzes who don’t mind sharing what they know. All we have to do is ask.

4 thoughts on “Andromeda: From the million-dollar Loft to the basement-based CityLit, models abound”

  1. Andromeda,
    Thank you for doing all this scouting and research. Your enthusiasm and commitment shine through. I look forward to whatever comes next.

  2. I second Nancy — thank you to both Andromeda and Deb for all this hard work! It is incredibly exciting to think of what a writing center could mean to all of us. I know that throughout my writing life I have craved the kind of workshops, readings, and interactions with other writers that you are considering. I'm also impressed with the fact that it isn't just optimism driving the effort, but a lot of practical research! That bodes well for its success.

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