In a meeting this evening at its Sequoya Branch, the library board voted in favor of the library taking over the event from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The board also gave library director Greg Mickells authority to head the festival.
Though all board members present supported this transfer of leadership, Barbara Karlen voiced one reservation: that library staff are "stretched pretty thin already" as they prepare to open a new Central Library and expand the Meadowridge Branch.
The council has decided against leading the festival because devoting heavy funding and staff resources to the decidedly Madison-centric event conflicts with its mission of supporting the humanities statewide.
Mickells' next step is to convince the Madison Public Library Foundation to fund his plan. The total budget for the festival has doubled since he presented his plan to the board in December, up to $211,500 from an initial estimate of $100,000 to $105,000. About $100,000 would come from the foundation, and the rest would be in-kind contributions from various entities and would include library staff time. (Full disclosure: Isthmus has been a major sponsor of the festival in the past.)
The foundation's board may reach a decision about Mickell's request as early as next week.
Mickells will also have to flesh out many details and hire a coordinator. In December, he stated that he'd like the festival to focus more on "prominent authors." A library-run festival would still incorporate a variety of workshops, he said, but would be four days instead of five and include fewer events overall. The Humanities Council, he noted, could afford to be more "aggressive" in soliciting authors and artists to participate in the festival. As for what authors the festival can snare and how much that might cost, Mickells says he'll have a clearer picture in February or March, when publishers usually begin setting tour schedules.
Mickells added that he'd like to broaden the festival's approach.
"What exactly that's going to mean, I'm not sure yet, but there's many aspects of literature that could be explored more fully," he said before tonight's meeting.
While he admits that his plan is light on details, he said he's dedicated to making sure the library can sustain its leadership of the festival over the long term. He said that he and the rest of the organization would "like to establish it as our own brand" and that his request to the foundation "isn't a one-time ask."
Marshall resident and previous festival volunteer Rex Owens voiced concern that focusing on big-name authors would mean sacrificing opportunities for Wisconsin authors to gain wider exposure.
"The first year, don't make any changes to the format," Owens told the board. "If Stephen King comes, it's only because he wants to use Lake Monona as the setting for a novel."
Owens was the only local resident who commented on the festival proposal at the meeting.
Tripp Widder, who serves on both the boards of the library and its foundation, said the foundation's executive director, Jennifer Collins, is "modestly optimistic" that the foundation can raise new funds for the $100,000 contribution Mickells has requested. But he cautioned that the festival's customary late-fall date doesn't allow much time for planning, emphasizing that long-term success hinges upon how well the library runs the event during its first year at the helm.
Humanities Council executive director Dena Wortzel says that $211,500 is "on the high side" of what her organization spent on the festival. She said this seems to indicate that Mickells is trying to devote enough resources to the festival to ensure its success. Wortzel has supported the library taking over the festival and has said the council would contribute some funding and staff support, though much less than in previous years.
While admitting that the festival comes with lots of pressure and unknowns, board members seemed highly enthusiastic about the library leading the fest.
"I'm real glad we're going to do it," board member David Wallner said. "It's too important not to, and we're the ones who should do it."