The Loft, Minneapolis’s literary center, turned 40 in August, and while the organization is preparing for the future under new executive director Britt Udesen, the anniversary also provided an opportunity to reflect on the contributions the Loft has made to publishing in Minnesota and beyond.
“The Loft is an invaluable part of the Twin Cities’ uniquely vibrant literary ecosystem,” noted Milkweed Editions publisher Daniel Slager. “Many excellent writers have developed and honed their craft in the Loft’s writing classes. We have published a good number of them, as have [other] publishers. They also award invaluable support to working writers and host phenomenal events, featuring many of our nation’s best writers.”
In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2015, the Loft sponsored 58 literary events that involved 240 authors and spoken-word artists, held 337 classes taught by 245 writers, and provided 30 artist residencies and collaborations. Audiences for literary and spoken-word events totaled almost 11,000 people, with another 4,500 enrolled in Loft classes. Its recent 40 for 40 anniversary fund-raiser and celebration, August 21–22, netted the Loft almost $25,000. And Talking Volumes, the regional book club that the Loft sponsors in partnership with Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, draws audiences across the Upper Midwest.
“I inherited an organization with a strong reputation, a happy work culture, and an endowment. We may be the only literary organization in the country with an endowment,” Jocelyn Hale, who served as executive director for the past eight years, said before her tenure officially ended on August 22. The Loft’s endowment is $2.4 million, and its annual budget is $2.2 million. It paid authors and other artists $400,000 in fiscal 2015 for teaching, mentoring, and judging and also awarded another $194,000 in grants and fellowships.
While the Loft’s primary impact is on Minnesota’s literary world, directors of other literary organizations outside the state saluted the Loft not only as a model for their own efforts, but also for the advice the Loft’s leaders have extended over the years. Gregg Wilhelm of Baltimore’s CityLit Project called the Loft “the grand dame” of literary centers, declaring, “CityLit would not exist if it weren’t for the Loft.”
Wilhelm, who began his publishing career at Johns Hopkins University Press, was inspired to launch CityLit in 2004 after visiting Open Book, the downtown-Minneapolis building housing the Loft and other literary-oriented organizations, including Milkweed. “I had to recreate that vibe in Baltimore,” he said. “I’ve mimicked many of the Loft’s programs.” In 2010, CityLit, which has a budget that fluctuates between $175,000 and $200,000, launched an imprint, CityLit Press, to publish literary fiction, poetry, and regional titles. CityLit is now “a combination of the Loft and Milkweed,” Wilhem explained
“We were young and dumb when we started,” Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop program director Andrea Dupree said of the 18-year-old organization that she cofounded with executive director Michael Henry in 1997, an organization that had a $1.5 million budget in 2015, increasing to $1.8 million for 2016. “When we discovered the Loft, they were so generous.” Not only did the Loft provide “practical advice about everything” but it has also “validated us,” Dupree noted. “We look at them and we see what we might someday want to do.”
Eve Bridburg had not heard of the Loft in 1997 when she founded GrubStreet in Boston, which now has a $1.9 million budget and serves about 3,500 adults and children with classes, workshops, and programs. But Bridburg singled out the Loft’s previous executive director, Linda Myers, as well as Hale, for praise, explaining that both guided her through the process of building a nonprofit from scratch, “even though one could consider us competitors” for funding.
“They were the first in a brand-new field and therefore set the tone,” Bridburg said. “Because of the example they set, independent writing centers view each other as colleagues rather than competitors.”