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Friends President Beth Burns on canceling the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony: ‘Out of adversity comes creativity’

A scene from a previous Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.
Courtesy of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library
A scene from a previous Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.

The 32nd annual Minnesota Book Awards ceremony was scheduled for April 28. Important changes were in place for a beloved Minnesota tradition and the biggest yearly bash for our local literary community.

Instead of being held at a downtown St. Paul hotel or the Union Depot, it was to move to the Ordway Concert Hall. More seats, no tables, more affordable tickets. The judges, who read stacks of books and meet for hours to choose the winners, would get a stipend. Emerging writers could buy $10 tickets. The whole thing would be more diverse, inclusive and equitable.

And then it was canceled. But there will be an event on April 28. And it will be hosted by T. Mychael Rambo, a cause for celebration all by itself.

The Minnesota Book Awards are produced by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, where Beth Burns has been president since January 2017. We spoke with Burns late last week. This interview has been edited and condensed.


MinnPost: Have the Minnesota Book Awards ever been canceled?

Beth Burns: Not to our knowledge. We are still going to announce the awards and recognize the winners on April 28. We’re just looking at a very altered format for how that happens. This is an evolving process right now. Out of adversity comes creativity.

What we’re trying to figure out is how to recognize the winners across all nine categories in a way that is celebratory and meaningful to them while keeping everyone safe and socially distant. We’re looking at an online livestream event format. Part will be a prepackaged, preproduced segment. We really do want to announce the winners live.

Beth Burns
Beth Burns
One thing we haven’t announced publicly yet, but I’m thrilled to say, is that our emcee will be T. Mychael Rambo. He was going to host our in-person event, and he’s still very much on board. He’s joyful, he’s compassionate, and he’s good for the soul. We didn’t know when we asked him to be emcee just how perfect he would be. What we need to do is bring people together, but in a way that recognizes there’s a lot of anxiety right now.

MP: Even before the in-person event was canceled, the awards were shaping up to be new and different.

BB: We very intentionally this year made significant changes to what the ceremony would have been. All of that was great. And now, suddenly, we can reach way more people with this format and it’s going to be free for everyone. We’re thinking about how to lean hard into the values that motivated that first set of changes and continue to let those guide us.

MP: How many tickets had you sold before you canceled?

BB: We had sold about 580 tickets, including sponsors, prior to cancellation. We were tracking way ahead of the previous year’s projections. [Note: All tickets to this year’s ceremony were $45. For emerging writers, 100 tickets were available for $10 each.]

MP: How much do the Friends depend on the income from the Book Awards ceremony?


BB: We don’t depend on ticket sales, and we feel very fortunate in that regard. We incur expenses to produce the event and support the writers, but this is a highly valued program across the state, so we receive grant funds, sponsorships and state support.

For instance – and this is one of those makes-your-heart-full-to-bursting moments – we had to follow up with all the category and event sponsors to say, “It’s just not happening anymore. But we see the Minnesota Book Awards as much more than a one-night party. We see it as a year-round program. Would you consider standing with us even through this cancellation?” Everybody said yes.

Education Minnesota is the lead sponsor. They make a generous financial contribution to the event. They’ve got a lot going on right now, but they were the first to say, “Of course we are with you 100 percent.”

As a library Friends and Foundation organization, we have a pretty wide portfolio of what we do year-round. We do fundraising and advocacy at the local and state levels. We have a national consulting group that also brings revenue into the organization. The diversity of work we do is part of our role as the Center for the Book in Minnesota, a Library of Congress designation. All of that means we’re a flexible organization. But all of our revenue is vulnerable right now.

The money that we raise supports the programs that happen statewide. We turn our funds around and put those finalists and winners on the road for paid work in Greater Minnesota and building new audiences for their writing through readings and classroom visits.


MP: Your blog includes interviews with all of the finalists. But your Meet the Finalists event, which would have been this Friday at the Latimer Central Library, has been canceled. 

BB: We’re asking ourselves, “If we can’t have the writers all together on April 28, what are some other ways to make their work better known to a broader audience?” We’re looking at online readings and more interviews. What about a poem of the day? We don’t yet have the meat on all the bones of this planning, but that’s a huge priority.

My hope is that by this fall we’ll be able to gather in community again. If that’s the case, our Moving Words tour will continue. Libraries across the state are divided into 12 geographic regions. We have at least one library and one school event this fall in each of those 12 regions, from Worthington to Warroad. And we’re not just sending one writer to each destination. We’re sending four at a time.

MP: What else can you tell us about what might happen on April 28?

T. Mychael Rambo
Courtesy of the artist
T. Mychael Rambo
BB: We’re committed to announcing the winners live in real time. We like the idea of creating some sort of excitement and event and news that evening. T. Mychael will be engaged in how that comes together. All of that is still very fluid.

With things like the Kay Sexton Award, the Hognander Minnesota History Award and the Minnesota Book Artist Award that have already been announced, we’re able to do some prepackaging.

Jim Lenfestey is such a worthy recipient of the Kay Sexton Award. It would be great to celebrate him in front of all of his literary peers. He’s unassuming and not very interested in having bright lights shine on him. But it’s time for him to be embarrassed as we talk about how fantastic he is, and how meaningful his work has been across so many aspects of our literary community.

MP: What else would you like people to know about this year’s Minnesota Book Awards?

BB: Obviously, we are disappointed that we can’t have the in-person ceremony. Ironically, we may do a better job of helping people understand that this is more than a ceremony. It’s a year-round program that connects readers and writers.

***

Browse all 36 finalists for the Minnesota Book Awards here. Read the interviews with this year’s finalists on the Friends Blog. New interviews will be added each day leading up to April 28. Follow the Minnesota Book Awards on Facebook for updates on what April 28 will look like.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 03/31/2020 - 11:58 am.

    It is heartwarming in this fraught time to know that the Book Awards sponsors are standing solidly with the Friends organization in recognition of the importance of all aspects of our outstanding Minnesota literary world.
    (If I worked at it, I could probably lengthen that sentence into two more lines!)

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