Written Off 

Lack of donor support threatens the Southern Festival of Books

Nashville’s marquee cultural event, the Southern Festival of Books, suffered a blow in 2004 when the city saw the literary event move to Memphis because of downtown construction.

Nashville’s marquee cultural event, the Southern Festival of Books, suffered a blow in 2004 when the city saw the literary event move to Memphis because of downtown construction. The deal meant that Nashville would forever have to share the festival with the Bluff City, hosting it only every other year. Now organizers of the event say that the festival’s very existence is being threatened by lack of donor support.

“Unless we get more government support or something, I don’t know how we could keep going,” says Robert Cheatham, president of Nashville-based Humanities Tennessee, which organizes the event. “I think the festival itself, either in Nashville or Memphis, is going to have to do something [to survive.] We do a whole lot more than the festival. We have a lot of programs, and they demand a certain amount of money themselves. They are not getting any cheaper. There is more and more pressure on our money. We’re getting to the point where...we’re going to have to decide what we cut.”When the Southern Festival of Books took a road trip to Memphis in 2004, some thought it was quite the detour. By most accounts, the event, which was born in Nashville in 1989, was the first of its kind. And by 2004, its 15-year run had established it as one of the country’s premier literary gatherings, a haven for hundreds of authors and the tens of thousands of readers who found it to be one of the few places where the written word came to life, if only for a weekend.

Author Reynolds Price, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (and a favorite of President Bill Clinton) once said the Nashville event was “by a good distance, the most elegantly organized and realized” literary festival he’d known. With all that sophistication and elegance, Memphis just seemed, at the very least, an odd fit for the festival.

The thing is, the festival isn’t fully supporting itself in either city. Never has, really. But Memphis, at least, has had a much better showing—and has been making much larger deposits in the collective book bank. It’s a phenomenon that has baffled some Nashvillians, many of whom wouldn’t have thought that Memphis would have to throw Music City over its shoulder to better fund a literary event.

“It’s just hard to imagine, frankly,” Mayor Bill Purcell says. “As a place that really cares about books and book publishing, and as a place that really believes in the importance of libraries, it’s just a natural for us here. This is the Athens of the South, after all, and so we have long believed that the written word and the ideas that are shared from that are important to our cultural advancement. I’m surprised that [Humanities Tennessee] would have difficulty in getting support here….”

When Legislative Plaza, the longtime site of the event, underwent renovations in 2004, Humanities Tennessee didn’t have much of a choice but to look for other hosting options. Plus the National Endowment for the Humanities, the organization’s main source of governmental funding, was concerned that Humanities Tennessee—a statewide organization—was concentrating too much of its resources in Nashville.

A year in Memphis seemed the perfect solution. “When we started talking about [moving it to Memphis]—and this I had not foreseen—we had to promise that it was not going to be a one-shot deal,” says Cheatham.

But no one would’ve guessed that Memphis would be so, well, into it.

The city easily matched Nashville’s level of volunteerism and individual donations for the event. Then came the corporate donations—the kind of major bankrolling Nashville had struggled with (and still does).

Serenity Gerbman, the festival’s director, says it was a certain newness that explains Memphis’ firm embrace of the event. “I think there’s a sense of enthusiasm and possibility with any first-time event in any community…and I think we did a great job of capitalizing on that.”

To be fair, the event’s organizers say Nashville has always had a strong showing of individual donations of time and money. And with an average draw of 20,000 attendees—more than half from outside of the Metro area—turnout has never been a problem. But money has.

It can take upward of $300,000 to cover the event, a price tag that’s only increased since 9/11. Humanities Tennessee now has to pay for “enough security to run a small-town police force,” Cheatham says. And where many of its counterparts across the country now charge for tickets, Humanities Tennessee has held steadfast to its vow to keep the festival free and accessible to the masses.

As the festival’s cost grows, corporate gifts are shrinking—especially in Nashville. Humanities Tennessee is now dipping into its NEH grant money and scrimping on its other programs just to fund the event. The organization once used only about $50,000 of its NEH monies to underwrite the festival, but it’s now using closer to $100,000.

So how does a festival that has placed Nashville so prominently on the literary map lose steam?

River Jordan, a Southern mystic writer who moved to Nashville after presenting her book The Gin Girl at the 2003 festival, says it’s easy to take the event for granted. “That’s a human trait,” she says. “We take our spouses and friends and family for granted. I think the same thing happens for a festival…. You just begin to think, ‘Oh, it’s here again this year. Of course it’s here. It’s always here.’ It’s easy to pass up the [donation] buckets at the end of the festival.”

Cheatham says that part of the problem is simply the nature of corporate giving—or lack thereof. “Nashville is, I hate to say it, a branch town…. Most of the buildings you see are owned by someone out of town or by the state of Tennessee. And so, there are just less and less organizations that are involved in the community to fill a need.”

With the October festival looming—and without Memphis corporate support—Humanities Tennessee has raised only $10,000 toward its $50,000 corporate goal in Nashville.“Maybe these things have a life. Maybe people do lose interest,” Cheatham says. “Sometimes I wake up at 5 in the morning worrying about it…. I think we’re either going to have to get some new infusion of money or lose something. We’re on the edge of having to make a decision in the next couple of years.”


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