Who will write its next chapter?

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Writers & Books plans to expand its Gell Retreat Center in South Bristol, adding accommodations for up to 25 visitors. (Rendering and photos courtesy of Writers & Books)

Help wanted: The soul of an artist, the drive of an entrepreneur, the management skill of a chief executive, the panache of a public persona. Applications due Jan. 15, 2019.

In its nationwide search for a new executive director, Rochester literary center Writers & Books is seeking a rare combination of qualifications to guide the organization into a new era of financial stability, creative innovation and community relevance.

“It’s a unique job. You have to have the heart and soul of a literary person—someone who’s a devoted reader or writer. Then you also need the brain of an entrepreneur able to make ends meet and run what is essentially, underneath it all, a business,” says Joe Flaherty, founder and interim director of Writers & Books. “It’s tough finding someone who has all those, but I’m sure they’re out there.”

A leading U.S. literary center

Joe Flaherty

Writers & Books is one of the nation’s oldest and most active community-based literary centers. Its 300-plus creative writing classes and workshops for youth and adults reach an audience of thousands each year—the highest per-capita audience participation of any literary center in the United States.

Writers & Books employs a part-time staff of 12 and more than 60 contracted teaching artists. Its $600,000 annual budget is supported by the New York State Council of the Arts, annual dues from some 850 members, class fees and the dollar you put on the front desk when you get a cup of coffee. (I am a Writers & Books member and have taken several classes there over the years, as well as taught one or two.)

Flaherty started the organization in 1981, after traveling the East Coast and Midwest for several years in something he called “The Book Bus,” bringing the work of contemporary authors to small towns. Writers & Books has grown from a one-room storefront into its current home in a former firehouse at 740 University Ave. in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. It also owns and operates the Gell Retreat Center in South Bristol.

Balancing creative vision, fiscal feasibility  

In its search for a new executive director, Writers & Books seeks someone with passion for and understanding of the center’s mission, as well as executive leadership experience and fundraising clout. Flaherty says his biggest disappointment is that some great programs Writers & Books wanted to offer could not land the necessary financing.

“There are a lot of programs that never really were launched, that I thought would make a big difference in the community. The funding for them, after many tries, was just never there,” he says. “One of them was a community-wide memoir writing program for seniors … a chance to gather those stories, preserve them, and share them with younger people.”

As enduring a community presence as Writers & Books has been, the lack of an endowment makes each year financially precarious, he adds.

“Every year is another year that has to stand on its own in terms of expenses and income—and having more income than expenses so we can expand and do more things.”

Revenues for the year ended Sept. 30 were $605,692. Revenues over the previous two years were somewhat higher, $640,008 in 2017 and $764,881 in 2016, due to a capital campaign to pay off the mortgage on 740 University Ave.

Writers & Books has employed just two executive directors in its 37-year history. Flaherty returned to the post as interim director after Kyle Semmel, who’d headed the organization since 2016, stepped down in October. Flaherty is eager to retire—again—and have time to complete a memoir he is writing. He also is devoting time to raise money for a planned Gell Center expansion.

Gell Center plans move forward

In 2017, Writers & Books won a $527,000 regional development grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and Empire State Development to expand the Gell Center, which includes the original home of the Gell family and the Gleason Lodge meeting space. It does not include housing for large groups or extended stays.

The project would add accommodations for up to 25 visitors, with lounge areas and more parking. Architectural plans have been drawn up, and now Writers & Books is working with engineers and the South Bristol planning board. The next step is to raise matching funds.

“We’re really looking forward to making that a regional, national and international destination for people, as a writers’ center, as a conference center and as a place for people to meet for various kinds of events,” Flaherty says.

His other priorities for the organization are to expand the Ladder Literary Conference and the Rochester Reads program.

The Ladder is a mix of panels focused on the four rungs of the publishing ladder: write, edit, connect and publish. The one-day annual conference—next scheduled for June 8, 2019—brings agents and editors to Rochester for face-to-face contact with writers interested in both the craft and business of writing.

The Ladder marks a shift to regionalize Writers & Books by collaborating with organizations in Livingston County and the Finger Lakes, says Al Abonado, a teacher at Writers & Books and its former director of adult programs.

Also spanning the region is Rochester Reads, an annual event in which Writers & Books selects one book for the community to explore together, including an extended residency by the author. The current selection is “American War” by Omar El Akkad, who will do readings and book signings at area libraries, colleges and senior centers March 26 through March 29.

“In today’s world, outside of the groups you are part of, there’s very little opportunity to meet and converse with other people,” Flaherty says. “Having people throughout the community read the same book—and then get together to discuss it—gives opportunities for conversation to take place.”

A drive to increase diversity

Writers & Books’ offices are on 740 University Ave.

A chief aim of Writers & Books is to create a safe space for voices of all backgrounds, beliefs, origins and abilities. To this end, it is tackling a challenge endemic to many Rochester arts and cultural organizations whose typical participant is white, middle class and aging.

“Our staffing, although probably more female than male, is not as ethnically diverse as I think it should be,” Flaherty says. “And our audience too. We’re reaching out to get more people involved.”

Abonado says that over his four years with Writers & Books, he has not seen a significant shift in participation.

“Writers & Books has a strong core of loyal artists, aspiring or experienced, that has remained pretty consistent throughout the years,” he says. “Rochester is such a diverse city that programming for the community can be a challenge. Really, I’m interested to see what the new executive director envisions for the organization.”

The next generation of leadership

To reach promising candidates for executive director, Writers & Books has posted the position on major job boards—Indeed, Monster, ZipRecruiter—as well as with a range of national arts and cultural organizations, including the Foundation Center, Poets & Writers magazine and the Alliance of Artist Communities. It’s also working its own Rochester community networks.

“We’re looking for qualified candidates of all different backgrounds,” Flaherty says. “We’re looking for as wide a candidate pool as we can possibly gather.”

To diversify its leadership, staffing, programming and participants, Writers & Books also has established scholarships to make its programs financially accessible and recruited fresh faces to its 24-member board of directors.

Tokeya Graham is a poet and an associate professor of English at Monroe Community College. She’s also the founder of We All Write, a black women’s writing collective, and host of the Sunday morning show “Soulstainable Living” on Jazz 90.1. A community and literary activist, she moderated Rochester’s first Black Author Expo.

Graham joined the Writers & Books board roughly a year ago.

“We need to have different voices at the table,” she says. “I would like to see more people of color.”

Without diversity of experience, identity and thought, she says, Writers & Books might be viewed as boutique organization rather than a vital connecting force across Rochester’s many divides. Graham envisions more space for people whose first language is not English, for veterans, for seniors, for novice writers and for people who never thought their story was worth hearing.

“If you can put pencil to paper, crayon to paper, idea to page, you’re the person we want,” she says. “When you give people a platform to tell their story, that creates a space of power.”

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