This is the sixth article in a series on reopening arts and cultural organizations across Tennessee. As Tennessee continues to open up in this ever-changing environment, new opportunities and challenges appear as we come back together in person. In addition, arts and cultural organizations are essential to the recovery of Tennessee’s economy. In recognition of the very challenging circumstances facing arts and cultural organizations, these articles aim to bring us together as a community by sharing how different organizations find opportunities and solutions to moving the arts forward in our state.
By Lee Baird, Director of Literary Arts & Grants Analyst
That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Belonging. The very concept of it has been transmuted in the past eighteen months. In our resilience, we have learned to maintain our relationships in novel and, perhaps sometimes, unexpected ways. We have even formed new bonds based on shared realities. We know that belonging doesn’t require proximity, only shared affinities. I agree with Fitzgerald that literature is particularly suited to this reality. Alone, with a book, one can feel connected to characters in a story or even have a sense of kinship with others reading the same book. Libraries have reported increased e-book and audio-book check-outs during the pandemic, and online book sales have increased as well. For the individual reader and lover of literature, this is heartening news. However, for literary arts organizations, this poses a challenge. How do they maintain the connection with readers and writers when we are physically isolated? How do they maintain their sense of belonging in the literary lives of their constituents? Fortunately, Tennessee’s literary arts organizations have proven themselves to be proactive and adaptable. Today we will look at how they have evolved and what things look like going forward.
Community reading events like Chattanooga State’s Writers @ Work program and Memphis Reads at Christian Brothers were successful in going virtual but are pleased to be returning to in-person events this year. The Friends of the Knox County Public Library will renew their tradition of bringing the most honored children’s writers, illustrators, and musicians working today to the families of East Tennessee at the Annual Children’s Festival of Reading after having to cancel last year’s festival. In many cases, responding to the realities of COVID-19 opened new possibilities, accelerated technological upgrades, and even expanded audiences. The Nashville Public Library’s Bringing Books to Life program purchased several Zoom licenses to bring programing into classrooms virtually. Now, it feels better prepared to present its offerings on whatever platform is required by schools. Using a virtual platform for its Writer’s Conference allowed Tennessee Mountain Writers to lower its fees, opening the event to some who may not have been able to attend before. A new partnership opportunity occurred when Southern Lit Alliance worked with Arts Build in Chattanooga to create videos for fourth graders featuring children’s author Rita Hubbard to take the place of their usual Theatre Express field trips.
The pandemic prompted the Story Town radio show in Jonesborough to move up its plans to live-stream its shows and create a podcast. In doing so, they gained a new audience across the country and around the world. They now have listeners in 24 countries. All of this gives TN Arts’ literary arts grantees a lot to think about. Benjamin Smith from Southern Word said, “Access to classroom time and youth were the biggest challenges. We have created some new opportunities rethinking our service delivery.” According to Humanities Tennessee, “This past fiscal year provided a creative challenge for our team to think about program delivery, access, and inclusivity in new ways. We see technology playing an integral role going forward to ensure Tennesseans in urban and rural communities may have more options for participating in arts and humanities programming.”
The literary arts community in Tennessee is vibrant, resilient, and back in person. It is a community in which all lovers of the printed word should be proud to belong.