THE NEA & Alice James Book, Maine
The recent political beratement on the National Endowment for the Arts has just about everyone I know alerted. As the largest arts grantmaker in the country the precise impact of the organization is truly unquantifiable. It’s influence is found in community conversations, resources such as free after school programs, workshops ranging from professional development to assisting the elderly, cultural festivals and screenings, and by bringing crucial access to the arts in underserved sectors of the country. 65% of the NEA’s budget of $148 Million goes towards small and medium sized organizations, ensuring that all fifty states in the country have exposure to diverse views of culture, through music, art, literature, dance, and theater. All this for merely .004 % of the federal budget. But what do these numbers really measure? Where does the money actually go and what is its impact? What would happen and exactly who would be affected if the funding entity was cut?
Enter: Alice James Book, Maine.
The first stop is near the University of Maine campus at Farmington, where Alice James Books, an independent poetry publishing agency, has been steadily dedicated to supporting women and marginalized writers since its founding in 1973. Originally established as a “feminist” press with aims to make a place for female writers in an overwhelming male dominated field, today they mentor established and emerging poets whose voices equally need to be amplified. They’ve also been receiving NEA funds every year since they became incorporated in 1975, solidifying the organization's long-standing history with the federal funding endowment and demonstrating the way the NEA fosters deep relationships with its fundees.
Alice James Books (AJB) is committed to inviting their writers and artists into the production process - allowing for a unique collaboration process that quickly gives them an edge over other presses. Their commitment to supporting marginalized artists runs beyond the eight publications they produce a year and their esteemed Alice James Award, which gives a $2,000 cash award, publication, distribution, and $1,000 speaking engagement fee to one lucky poet. They also host a yearly program of free professional development workshops with topics ranging from submitting work to managing that complicated publisher/editor relationship, while presenting 14 writing apprenticeship internships per year. Not to mention the newly released groundbreaking app, Alice James, which offers an online subscription to a digital catalogue of their publications as well as interviews, reviews, and additional materials from their writers. I reached out to their Executive Editor, Carey Salerno, to find out more about their programs and how the NEA directly affects all Alice James Books programs.
Jacque Donaldson, YPA (JD): What programs were made possible with the funding?
Carey Salerno, Alice James Books (CS): The NEA makes possible the publication, promotion, and distribution of eight books of poetry each year by Alice James Books. This includes ebook publications and is representative of the entire scope of our publishing program. In short, the NEA supports all books we publish.
JD: What percentage of your annual budget comes from the NEA?
CS: Approximately 10% of our annual budget is supported by funding from the NEA.
JD: When did you begin receiving funding?
CS: AJB was founded in 1973 and began receiving NEA grant awards the year it was incorporated, 1975, which means that our history of collaboration with the NEA extends over nearly the entire lifespan of the press. Because of the longevity of this relationship, one may get an accurate representation of the way in which NEA support and investment in budding arts initiatives delivers thriving, kinetic, and crucial arts programming to our nation.
JD: What was the impact the first year? (What programs, opportunities, or growth did the organization experience?)
CS: The funding of an annual, national book award and publication program was the immediate effect of the NEA’s first grant to AJB. This fundamental grant enabled the press to grow from a regional to a national press. When we observe the evolution of AJB’s programming over the past 40-some years, it becomes evident that the NEA’s resolute and energetic vision for the arts in this country has played an essential role in the press’s growth. We also clearly see that the NEA delivers tangible returns on its investments in the arts and national arts economy.
JD: How far does an NEA contribution go? Receivers of funding must match dollar for dollar though it’s often reported that $1 from the NEA brings in up to $14.
CS: Yes, the NEA requires a 1-1 match for grant funds, and that figure serves as a preliminary benchmark for understanding the Endowment’s program; however, yes, an organization’s actual project budget may–and typically does–reflect a much higher match in the ratio. This match also only tells part of the financial story. For instance, AJB’s annual NEA project budgets is around $150,000, which means that each $1 of $25,000 in NEA funding is matched 5-6 times over by the press. But also, the match information only delivers part of the financial picture, because one must consider the income generated by the project. The most direct link to generated income in our project (publishing) would be book sales, which earns about 4 times what the NEA invests in the project.
This figure, however, also answers nothing of the benefit individual artists see from the NEA’s support of the publication of their books, which can mean they get jobs, earn tenure, win major awards, are invited for speaking engagements, etc. Also, as the NEA acts much like a gatekeeper in the arts funding arena – signaling to other funders, institutional and individual, the significance and stability of an organization and its work – the financial benefits of NEA funding are assessable in the additional grants and support received by an NEA-backed organization. And, don’t forget that books supported by the NEA require the work of designers, printers, and distributers, and this work – and work like it inherent to the publishing industry – employs individuals in communities across the nation. So, considering the book sales income, the income derived from additional grantmakers and donors, the benefits to artists, and the numerous jobs the publishing industry sustains, I’d estimate that the $1 of NEA spending to $14 in return on investment is a sound, if not conservative, approximation.
JD: What is the capacity that your programs support? What is your organizational reach?
CS: Alice James Books is a leading independent press that serves our nation. It is dedicated to discovering and publishing exceptional poetry. The press continues to grow its list and is seen as an innovator in the field. AJB is committed to publishing a range of voices, supporting writers' careers, and publishing women and other writers whose work may otherwise be marginalized. As they urgently engage with numerous pressing, public issues, many AJB books reach far beyond the "standard audience" for poetry.
JD: What are the challenges with fundraising and balancing a non-profit or arts organization budget?
CS: The challenges are nuanced and numerous. Each year, the majority of funding in the form of grants and donations is not guaranteed, so each year the stability of an organization — its operations — hinges largely on the outcome of hopeful predictions based on the interpretations of trends. There is the danger, always, of losing funding sources to the changing priorities of grantmakers and donors. There is the immense dearth of grantmakers devoted to the literary arts, and the incredible pressure that’s on those that currently do exist: we’re all beating down their doors to try to get support and stability. Organizations devoted to the literary arts also must work more diligently to tell their stories, to share with donors what makes them worth partnering with and investing in. As an organization devoted to publishing poetry, AJB is operating in a highly specific arena within the field of literature, and the more specialized the process the easier it is to articulate the mission, but also the more complicated it becomes to show the very tangible influence the organization has and is capable of fostering.
JD: What are your biggest fears when imagining a government that does not support the arts and humanities?
CS: My biggest fear is that we, as a nation, are agreeing, collectively, to turn our backs on the arts, to say art has no place in our country, our hearts, our minds. That we’re saying our words and stories play no central role, have no benefit to others. My worry is that we will be disallowed to hear stories that help us connect to one another, to understand, to teach our children empathy. There are many quantifiable – dollar amount contingent — benefits we see produced by the arts. It is easy to articulate these, but what about benefits that may only be qualified, like the ways in which interacting with the arts enriches our lives daily? What about the ways in which we look to the arts to show us how to express what exists in each one of us, our collective singularity, that illuminates our very humanness? The arts show us how to find value in the emotional experiences of our lives, and that is invaluable. How do you even put a dollar sign on it? If the country’s leadership signals that the arts have no place, no value in our lives as Americans, we all suffer for it. I have so many fears, I guess, but I also have hope. I have belief in the greatness of people, of community. We’re coming out in great numbers to show the strength and importance of the arts in our country: arts as economic driver, arts as educator, arts as healer, arts as fuel for the soul.
At an especially polarizing time, knowing your facts, sharing stories and experiences about the importance of art programs, education, and free expression can be persuasive tools in advocating for the NEA. You can take solid steps towards protecting the endowment by picking up the phone and calling your representatives in the House and Senate.
Alice James Books is a proud affiliate of the University of Maine at Farmington. Learn more at their website, alicejamesbook.org and follow on facebook, instagram, and twitter for their latest writerly updates.