Every year that it has staked out its tents on legislative plaza, since the first "Celebration of the Written Word" in 1989, the Southern Festival of Books has received assistance from the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. This year, however, the commission's books snapped shut.
When Humanities Tennessee, which stages the fest, submitted its grant request to MNAC on the April 12 deadline, the agency was stunned to discover that its application was ineligible. The organization appealed the decision, but on April 29 it was denied.
The rationale charts a tortuous trail through the grants guidelines. But the bottom line is that the fest — a free event that draws people from all over the state and beyond to Nashville — will receive no support from its host city this year.
First, a little history. According to former MNAC director Tom Turk, then-Mayor Phil Bredesen initiated Metro funding for the arts during his first term. Hizzoner wanted to give the Nashville Symphony, then staggering from its recent bankruptcy, some basic operational support to help stabilize one of the backbones of Nashville's arts community.
Other arts entities, feeling slighted, lobbied for funds. Bredesen asked MNAC to develop a competitive grants program to accommodate them. The grants pool peaked at $2.36 million in 2008 and then began falling, like other government allocations. Last year MNAC awarded $1.88 million in grants.
Over the years, MNAC regularly modified its grants guidelines. The category of grant for which Humanities Tennessee applied changed as the guidelines changed.
"Some years I think we got what are called program funds rather than basic operational support, when they had a category for projects," recalls Robert Cheatham, president of Humanities Tennessee. "When the guidelines included just basic operations, we applied for that."
But Humanities Tennessee never applied to MNAC for support for its entire organization, Cheatham says. "We've always applied just for the book festival because that's what we use the money for," he explains. "The two years we presented the festival in Memphis, we of course didn't apply."
According to Cheatham, the book fair has in recent years received approximately between $20,000 and $30,000 annually from MNAC, the mid-level basic op category. By way of comparison, the organizations receiving grants in the top category receive $100,000 or more.
Cheatham says that one year he discussed with MNAC staff the possibility of spinning off the book festival as a separate nonprofit, to resolve the apparent illogicality of applying for a basic op grant, intended to support a whole organization, for what's essentially a single program.
"I explained that the festival would die if we did that, because it wouldn't get to use the infrastructure, the staff, offices and supplies of Humanities Tennessee," Cheatham says. "So the commission agreed that we'd apply in basic op, but just for the festival. I admit it's peculiar, but we did it year after year, and the commission approved the money."
Until now. MNAC executive director Jennifer Cole points out that "the guidelines clearly state that no organization is guaranteed funding from year to year, so past awards are irrelevant."
"Southern Festival of Books is a lovely initiative," she says. "And I don't think there's any question that it's a literary arts program, and would be classified as such by the state arts commission and the National Endowment for the Arts." Indeed, according to Cheatham, the book fest regularly receives grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and NEA.
To Cole, however, the distinction between arts and humanities makes Humanities Tennessee ineligible for a basic op grant — and the Southern Festival of Books doesn't qualify for their current project grants, which are skewed toward neighborhoods and after-school programs. To clarify which groups can get basic op grants, the new guidelines define "arts organization" as "those whose primary mission is to directly support performances, programs, exhibits and the dissemination of artistic content that engage professional artists in creative works." This statement replaced the previous guidelines: "Primary purpose must be to produce or present art or cultural programs."
"Only arts organizations are eligible for basic operational support, and they're a humanities organization," Cole says. She points to the Humanities Tennessee website: "Their mission statement doesn't mention the word 'arts.' And the majority of their programs aren't literary arts, they're community history, culture — the humanities."
The Lost Boys Foundation and the Native American Indian Association don't have "arts" in their mission statements either. Yet they are still in the running for basic op grants. And the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art's application is still alive in the "majors" category, despite its consistent split of programming between nature and culture.
Cheatham complains that MNAC staff "could have called to warn us" that the agency's usual application would be a nonstarter this year. "With notice I would have applied for operational support for our whole organization in the top category," he says. "I'd have had to establish that we're a literary arts organization, but I think I can do that."
Cole responds that MNAC sent all previous grantees a letter in December warning them of the new guidelines and advising them to attend an explanatory February workshop.
"The Humanities Tennessee representative asked no questions at the workshop, never called our grants officer or requested a meeting with her, never submitted a draft application to explore how it complied with the guidelines," she says. "Other organizations were also affected by the new guidelines, but they asked questions to find out how."
Fortunately, the book fest will happen even without MNAC funding. "We'll just have to do the extra fundraising to fill the gap," Cheatham says, "although it's hard in this economic climate. If we can't, we'll cut something else, such as Chapter 16."
Yet that too would kneecap a local literary scene already reeling from the death of almost every major bookseller in the city. The Chapter 16 website (whose content appears in the Scene through an arrangement with Humanities Tennessee) has become a rallying point for authors and readers starved for Tennessee-centered literary news and reviews. If Chapter 16 falls victim, ironically enough, to the semantic distinctions of the grants process, local book lovers will know exactly what state they're in — a state of siege.
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