The resurrection of the Writers’ Foundation
Isn’t literature a major art form of comparable cultural importance to music, dance or painting? Of course it is, most of us in Aspen would say, but in 1995 we came close to losing our only literary organization.In April 1995, I was dismayed to read in The Aspen Times that the annual June Conference of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Aspen’s main literary event, was to be canceled. I couldn’t imagine why – for the AWF had built a great reputation going all the way back to 1976. What made this closing doubly disturbing was that there was no one else to carry the ball for literature.So I turned up at the April meeting of the AWF Board. There were only about four other people present, and what I heard was very discouraging. Most of the board members had dropped out, there was no longer any staff, and there was no money in the bank. When I took a brief bathroom break and returned to the meeting room, I found I had been elected to the board. Let this be a stern warning to all those who poke their noses into a nonprofit’s affairs!Only Marcia Southwick Gell-Mann and myself refused to close down. At that, the other board members wished us luck and went home – leaving the AWF with just we two board members. What kept Marcia and me going? We knew that Aspen’s public understood how literature was so culturally important to our town. This was reflected by the many alarmed letters we read in the newspapers, by editorials in both papers, by the views of our friends and by a pledge of support from the Aspen Institute. Luckily there appeared to be no serious debts owing, so literature in Aspen wasn’t completely behind the eight-ball. Mouth-to mouth resuscitation was needed. Our first necessities were a new board, new executive director and new money. Marcia and I enlisted as new board members Merrill Ford, Herb Mack, Jan Greenberg, Kathryn Koch and Jerry Dolson – all of whom were to perform heroically in the coming months and years. By September 1995 we had hired Jeanne McGovern as our new executive director, but we couldn’t commit to her for more than a part-time salary. This left poor Jeanne quite nervous, but Jeanne was to prove a perfect choice, and she gave her all to the AWF for only part-time pay. Her successor directors, first Julie Comins and now Lisa Consiglio, were and are superb too. The new board members dug deep into our own pockets for donations and loans, which primed the pump for the AWF and paid the phone bills. After we’d knocked on every door, the Aspen Community Foundation donated $10,000 and the Gell-Manns came through with large personal donations. In time they brought us a $15,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Merrill Ford was a wiz in tapping affluent Aspenites for our cause.The AWF had clearly relied too much on programs meant only for writers. We decided to broaden our programs to the general reading public, for those who loved literature but had no intention of becoming a writer. Our revised tagline became, “Bringing Readers and Writers Together,” so we created many new programs for the Aspen reading public. Our staffs since ’95 have brought to Aspen such gifted authors as Madeleine Blais, Frank McCourt, Stacy Schiff, John Irving, Amy Tan, Ann Patchett, Spalding Gray, Daniel Schorr, Peter Matthiessen, David Guterson, James Salter, Her Majesty Queen Noor, etc. Naturally, we continued and expanded our workshops for novices and experienced writers.Since 1995, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation has been fortunate to have a series of hardworking boards and board presidents, first-rate and dedicated staff members, plus the most gratifying public support. Given this combination, we will continue our support of literature for our Aspen readers and for our local and visiting writers. As Montaigne once wrote of literature, “It is words that bind us together and make us human.”Larry Ladin was a closet writer while working in the computer business in Des Moines. After moving to Aspen/Snowmass in 1996, he came out of the closet as president of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. He wishes he had moved here sooner.
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