The Loft Still Flying High at Forty

by
Joanna Scutts
4.15.15

In the late summer of 1975, in a room above the Rusoff & Co. bookstore in Minneapolis’s Dinkytown neighborhood, the powerhouse literary nonprofit now known as the Loft was born. Growing out of a “poet’s club” assembled by the store’s owner, Marly Rusoff, whose members chipped in fifteen-dollar dues to pay rent on the upstairs room, the Loft Literary Center is now a serious business: It is the country’s largest nonprofit literary arts center and an invaluable resource, offering workshops, grants, events, and community to aspiring and established writers from the Twin Cities and far beyond. Today, the Loft makes its home in Open Book, a converted warehouse in downtown Minneapolis, alongside Milkweed Editions, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and dozens of writers’ studios.

Executive director Jocelyn Hale recently announced that she will step down this year, and that she plans to name her successor during the Loft’s fortieth-anniversary celebrations in August. Hale, who is leaving to spend time with her family and pursue her own projects, will be passing on a healthy and thriving organization—quite a contrast to her early days at the center. “I started in 2007, and almost immediately—practically my first day—the economy collapsed,” Hale says. The Loft’s robust program of online classes was born partly from this economic pressure, partly from the fact that technology was “front and center for absolutely everybody,” and not least from the realization that the Loft was already attracting far-flung virtual visitors. Hale’s team wanted both to expand the Loft’s reach and to shake up the usual offerings of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. “We just blew that out of the box,” Hale says. “We started having conferences in mystery writing, screenwriting, erotica, dystopia—just all over the map.”      

Today, the Loft hosts workshops for more than four thousand writers each year, held at Open Book, online, and at various locations across the Twin Cities. As local schools have faced increasing cuts to their arts budgets, the Loft has also begun to develop and lead creative writing programs in classrooms throughout the area.

Embracing what she calls a “servant-leadership model,” Hale has devoted the past eight years to finding money and support for programs that her eighteen-person staff and community feel passionate about pursuing. With an annual budget of two million dollars, the Loft receives funding from a variety of sources, including workshop and membership fees as well as grants from the state of Minnesota, the National Endowment for the Arts, charitable foundations, and for-profit companies like Amazon and Target. Each year the Loft gives more than four hundred thousand dollars in grants and fellowships to emerging and established writers, teachers, and spoken-word artists.

Hale believes the Loft’s work should reflect and serve its community and respond to the urgent need for greater equity and diversity in the literary world. She cites the work of performance poet and program director Bao Phi, who coordinates the Loft’s dynamic Equilibrium (EQ) series devoted to spoken-word artists and audiences of color. A recent reading by poet Claudia Rankine, meanwhile, drew five hundred people to the Loft’s two-hundred-seat auditorium. “We were dealing with crowd control for a poet who is talking about race issues in America,” Hale says. “We’ve had rock stars here, literal rock stars, and they haven’t gotten as big a crowd.”

The Loft is used to wrangling crowds: The center estimates that from September 2013 to August 2014 its seventy-three readings and events reached more than thirteen thousand people in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area. And this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, which was held in Minneapolis in early April, allowed the Loft to flex its events muscle for a national audience. Over the course of the three-day conference, the center hosted a reading with Cave Canem; a conversation with Kerri Miller, host of Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes series, and authors Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter; and an EQ “supershow” of more than twenty spoken-word artists, with a special appearance by Roxane Gay. The Loft is also planning to launch a new event in November: a two-day intensive pitch conference that will incorporate workshops, panels, and one-on-one meetings with agents and editors (visit www.loft.org for registration details).

In the meantime, to celebrate the Loft’s fortieth anniversary, Hale says the center will be coordinating a series of “forty events in forty hours,” from August 21 to August 22, which will include opportunities to meet with authors and editors, to “bring your dog to a dog park and hear literature about dogs,” and to listen to “campfire stories late at night at somebody’s loft overlooking the Mississippi River.” The series will honor the Loft’s history, and allow Hale to look to the future by passing the torch to a new leader. And after all that, “We’ll end it with a dance party at Open Book.”

Joanna Scutts is a writer and critic in Queens, New York. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and reviews nonfiction and literary fiction for several publications, including the Washington Post, the Guardian, and In These Times. Her website is joannascutts.com.