oOhyperblaster/shutterstock
oOhyperblaster/shutterstock

Working writers may find comfort in knowing that many of their literary heroes had to pay their dues before becoming famous. Stephen King was a janitor. Harper Lee was an airline reservations attendant. Margaret Atwood worked at a coffee shop.

The sad truth is that if each of these writers had to earn supplemental incomes during the pandemic, they’d probably be out of a day job. Such is the state of affairs for the country’s 235,000 working writers, a “vast majority” of whom, according to the Academy of American Poets, make their living “outside of commercial publishing and for-profit venues.”

Writers just received a much-needed boost from the academy, which announced the 282 nonprofit literary arts organizations that will receive funding as part of its $3.5 million Literary Arts Emergency Fund. The academy launched the fund in tandem with the Community of Literary Magazine and Presses and the National Book Foundation, in response to what it calls the “lack of institutional support for the nonprofit organizations and publishers that sustain literary culture in the U.S.”

The fund was made possible by a grant from a very familiar name in funding for the humanities—the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “Writers create humanity’s vast and intricate record—they are the chroniclers of our joys and fears, our varied inner lives, our humor, anguish and determination,” said foundation president and poet Elizabeth Alexander.

“This one-time emergency grant provides critical support both for these vital storytellers and for the organizations that ensure their written work remains accessible to enrich and deepen our collective engagement with a diverse, inclusive American culture.”

Financial Ripple Effects

On the surface, it may seem that literary arts organizations were better positioned to weather the crisis compared to, say, performing arts organizations that rely on live events for earned income. But as we’ve seen, most writers have day jobs, and in many cases, those jobs either no longer exist or have been significantly curtailed.

The pandemic has also forced literary arts organizations to scrap revenue-generating events like workshops and fundraisers. Maureen McDole, the founder of Keep St. Pete, which promotes greater St. Petersburg’s literary community, told Patch’s Skyla Luckey that she had to cancel the organization’s annual SunLit Festival this year, “and that event brings in sponsorship money, which helps to cover our programming for the rest of the year.” McDole said the organization saw a drop in monthly donations, as well.

Some organizations were able to plug the gap with emergency fundraising drives; others weren’t so fortunate. When the academy announced the fund in July, its press release cited an Americans for the Arts survey, which found that 253 literary organizations reported over $7.2 million in total losses to date.

Roughly seven months since the pandemic broke, the extent of the financial impact is becoming startlingly clear. According to the academy, the organizations and publishers receiving support from the Literary Arts Emergency Fund reported $28 million in financial losses to date and are projecting $48 million in losses in the year ahead.

Grants range from $5,000 to $50,000. Winners include Undocupoets ($5,000), an initiative that awards fellowships to currently or formerly undocumented poets; Arte Publico Press ($50,000), the oldest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Hispanic authors; and Keep St. Pete ($10,000). “This money will help us to bridge the financial gap until other funding opportunities open up,” McDole said.

The fund was open to organizations, magazines and presses, and a panel of representatives from the fund’s three sponsoring organizations chose the winners.

Mellon Keeps the Spigot Open

Literary Arts Emergency Fund’s model may look familiar. In early April, seven arts grantmakers, including the Academy of American Poets, launched the Artist Relief fund to provide immediate, unrestricted emergency funding of $5,000 for individual artists of all disciplines. The fund was seeded with $5 million from Mellon and matched with $5 million in initial contributions from partner foundations.

In June, Mellon announced it would boost giving in 2020 from $300 million to $500 million to provide emergency COVID-19 support to higher education, arts and humanities nonprofits.

The foundation hasn’t disappointed. Back in late August, I looked at its $5 million COVID-19 Crisis Relief Grant in support of artists and organizations “flying beneath the national radar.” And in mid-September, the foundation announced its Art Museum Futures Fund, an emergency grant program starting with nearly $24 million to be distributed to 12 mid-sized art museums across the country.

Mellon has been a stalwart funder of the American Academy of Poets. In 2019, about a year into Alexander’s tenure, the foundation awarded the academy $2.2 million to support a new Poets Laureate Fellowship program and the Poetry Coalition, a national alliance of more than 20 poetry organizations.

In January, Mellon awarded the academy $4.5 million to fund its fellowship program for three years. The gift, according to NPR’s Elizabeth Blair, was “believed to be the largest grant ever made by a philanthropic institution to support poets.” Calling the gift a “game-changer,” poet and former National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia told Blair that while multimillion-dollar grants to performing arts institutions are commonplace, the poetry world has made do on tiny grants from small funders. “Usually it’s $25,000 and you’re supposed to be grateful,” he said.

Another main player behind the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, the National Book Foundation, runs signature programs that aim to develop reading skills and the love of reading in underserved populations. Click here to learn more about its grants for creative writers.

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