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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison Public Library unveils plan for revamping Wisconsin Book Festival
Library director proposes four-day event with 'marquee' approach to programming
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The Wisconsin Book Festival could soon change hands.
The Wisconsin Book Festival could soon change hands.

The Wisconsin Book Festival would shrink to four days and focus on big-name authors under a proposal Madison Public Library director Greg Mickells announced at Thursday night's Library Board meeting at the Madison Senior Center.

Mickells outlined a plan for the Library to take over the festival in 2013. The festival's main funder and coordinator, the Wisconsin Humanities Council, plans to relinquish the reins after nearly 11 years in charge.

The Board did not vote on Mickells' proposal Thursday, but will revisit it at its Jan. 3 meeting. Mickells said the Madison Public Library Foundation has asked him to identify funding sources by Jan. 15, which means he has a tight deadline for providing more details.

The festival's most recent director, Alison Jones Chaim, urged the Library to take over the festival.

"I think the Library needs to step up and be the heroes," Chaim said. "Madison truly loves this festival."

Chaim said the Wisconsin Humanities Council had also approached Overture Center and the Wisconsin Academy about taking over the festival. Both passed, she said, because the festival's mission falls outside the scope of their own.

Chaim acknowledged that some Library Board members might feel "trepidation" about the pressure and risks associated with keeping the book festival alive long-term. But she urged members to "look forward to accolades for taking it on while it's in limbo" rather than worrying about potential difficulties.

Mickells' proposal would make the festival four days long, Thursday through Sunday.

"We're just not equipped to deal with that scope of a project," he said of the 2012 festival's five-day span and 200-presentation schedule. Mickells' biggest proposed change is giving the festival "more of a focus on prominent authors" and a "marquee type of approach."

He advocates spending a larger portion of the festival budget on authors, to increase the chances of landing nationally prominent headliners. But he didn't rule out the possibility that a "marquee" author could be from Madison. Still, a smaller schedule and more famous authors implies fewer spots for lesser-known Wisconsin authors. The Library could spend less on facilities rentals than the current organizers because it would have its own space to host festival events. It would still hold some events at venues like Overture Center, however.

The budget for Mickells' proposal would range from $100,000 to $105,000. He says $40,000 of that would go toward staff time, $25,000 toward author fees and $10,000 toward facilities. The budget would depend in large part upon the Madison Public Library Foundation.

Chaim said the Humanities Council still plans to offer $10,000 for next year's festival. Mickells said the Madison Community Foundation has made a "verbal commitment" to contribute $25,000.

The Library Board members who discussed the proposal seemed cautiously supportive. Board vice president David Wallner said he wouldn't want the festival to lose its focus on Madison and Wisconsin authors. Ald. Larry Palm said it should be relatively easy to retain the festival's current private funders in the short term.

Wallner also agreed with a point Chaim made: A Library-led festival could coincide nicely with the planned opening of the new Central Library in fall of 2013.

Wisconsin Humanities Council executive director Dena Wortzel says her organization was developing "double vision" in its Book Festival role. While the Humanities Council's mission statement emphasizes serving "everyone in Wisconsin," the festival's audience is dominated by Madison residents.

"What we put into the Book Festival accounts for 20% of the Humanities Council's budget," Wortzel says. "That just felt disproportionate for an organization whose mission is to serve the entire state."

Wortzel says the Humanities Council began re-assessing its role in the festival about three and a half years ago as part of a strategic-planning process. It decided its main focus should remain the its own grant program and that the Book Festival demonstrated "the least bang for the buck" in terms of serving a statewide audience. On top of that, the Book Festival has incurred a 7% cut to its main source of funding, the National Endowment for the Humanities. A slumping economy has also made it tougher to raise private funds.

Wortzel argues that another organization could do a better job of running the festival. The Humanities Council has only two board members who live in Madison, and an organization with more locally based board members might have an easier time raising money here, she says. In addition, Wortzel says, an organization more centered on Madison could better tailor the festival's offerings to the tastes of local audiences.

She also foresees little difficulty keeping loyal private funders on board.

"Those people who have given to the Humanities Council for the Book Festival, they are Book Festival donors," Wortzel says. "There are ethical issues about releasing the donors' names, but the institutional donors are well-known."

Wortzel says the Humanities Council will likely give the festival a smaller chunk of funding and staff support once a new organization takes over. She admits that many people at the Humanities Council fees strongly about the Book Festival but says the organization won't try to impose its own vision on the next incarnation of the event.

"I don't think I'll be in the position to say 'You can't have clowns at your book festival because we didn't have clowns at ours,'" Wortzel says. "I foresee it being a very congenial and very productive transition in which we can be helpful."

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