Northern Arizona Book Festival Struggles

Flagstaff, AZ – For 10 years the Northern Arizona Book Festival has brought writers like Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Robert Pinsky and Ishmael Reed to Flagstaff. Each of these world-renowned writers came at a price.

Former director Rick Swanson:

SWANSON: I was always impressed that the book festival started out big. I thought that was a great vision rather than build it up small incrementally. But that meant that the bar was set high for future years so fund raising challenges were set high.

Founder Jeff Biggers set that bar.

BIGGERS: The first book festival was A-1 story for the Arizona Republic. That's the kind of publicity that the Chamber of Commerce can't buy tremendous amount of publicity. The next year the Arizona Republic the whole cover of the arts and leisure section was Flagstaff's Literary Miracle.

It's a literary miracle that's had its ups and downs. Current director Becky Byrkit says today the book fest budget exceeds $100,000 dollars a year. And it takes all year to raise that money for an event that only lasts a week. Most of the profit from the festival goes toward Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County. The festival gets its money from grants, corporations and individual donors. Byrkit says this year those individual donations were down 70 percent.

BYRKIT: And it's never something that you can call and say, hi I'm thinking of you. I remember that you were very generous with us last year. We haven't seen anything from you this year. Do you mind telling me why that is?' You can't do that.

Byrkit says she treated her position like a full-time job giving up a semester of teaching at Coconino Community College this year. She says this is her last year directing the festival.

Author Mary Sojourner has been involved with the book festival since it began. When she heard it was having trouble she organized a fundraiser called Paupers for the Book Fest.

SOJOURNER: Over the last 10 years I've seen an increasing gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us. And I've also seen in this community the increase in wealthy people in the population but a decline in contributions to the arts.

Former festival board member Anne Marie Mackler says part of the challenge is 20,000 non profits in Arizona are competing for the same pockets of money.

MACKLER: I think the festival in addition to that has some leadership problems. I think there's been some philosophical differences about which way the festival needs to go. I think that there is a diversity issue. I think that the board needs to be more diverse and it isn't. And I know that when it comes to certain grants that's what they want to see.

The Arizona Commission for the Arts, one of the festival's grantors, agrees saying diversity in both programming and leadership is important. Mitch Manchaca is the director of local arts development for the Arizona Commission for the Arts, which gets its money from the Arizona state legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts. Manchaca says every year there are more grant applicants.

MANCHACA: We have a growing population of artists and art organizations who are wanting to have funding for their projects. So as the pool gets bigger our funding dollars get smaller.

Manchaca says as a result funding agencies, corporations and individuals are giving smaller amounts to more non profits.

Festival founder Jeff Biggers:

BIGGERS: Every festival has monetary problems. We live in a day and age when arts have to struggle for funding. You look at every festival in the world and the issue of finance has gone on and on and on. Arts often takes a low priority in communities.

Fundraising consultant Alice Ferris says it's not just the arts; all non profits are hurting. She says non profits had a huge influx of giving in 2005 because of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

FERRIS: So I think what we're seeing in 2006 and 2007 is a bit of a decrease in charitable giving because people kind of gave to an organization for the first time in 2005 and it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to repeat their giving.

Ferris says people are more likely to give if they feel connected to the cause.

Jeff Biggers says for the festival that cause is literacy. A decade ago Biggers hosted a reading where poet Quincy Troupe performed. One person in the audience was especially moved.

BIGGERS: A young woman who was working in a hotel, trying to keep her head above water, raising two children, trying to get her literacy skills up so she could get her GED and she came to that reading her first poetry reading of her life. And I'll never forget she left me a message on my answering machine she said, Mr. Biggers, I wrote my first poem tonight. I'm not going to let you read it. But I like it. It really affected her. It changed her. Everybody has this incredible right and this incredible ability to tell us their stories. And they're important and they're important to Flagstaff and it's an important reason to keep the book festival alive.

Biggers says he isn't worried about its survival. But all agree it's hard work to keep the Northern Arizona Book Festival going.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.