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Writers Museum founder — still looking for a home — wowed by state’s Book Awards and literary scene

Malcolm O’Hagan is trying to drum up support for an American Writers Museum. He was in the Twin Cities over the weekend, and he liked what he saw.

Malcolm O’Hagan has a grand dream of an American Writers Museum, and he’s traveling the country trying to drum up support.

And money. Lots of money.

He was in the Twin Cities over the weekend, checking us out. And he liked what he saw.

His host, Patrick Coleman of the Minnesota Historical Society, gave O’Hagan a tour of the Twin Cities literary scene and brought him to the Minnesota Book Awards Saturday night, where he joined more than 700 people in St. Paul to honor Minnesota writers.

Coleman and others are hoping that O’Hagan’s favorable impression of the area — along with a few local donors with big bucks — might lure the museum to St. Paul.

“The book awards were really impressive,” O’Hagen told me Monday, as he waited at the St. Paul Hotel before heading to the airport. “A huge turnout, everyone dressed up, and great excitement.

“It was better than the Academy Awards.”

Malcolm O'Hagan
American Writers Museum
Malcolm O’Hagan

Coleman, who closely watched O’Hagan during the ceremony, told me: “He was beside himself. It was fun to look across the table and see his eyes twinkling and taking notes. He was favorably impressed, and it’s clear we’ll see lot more of him.”

Where to put the museum?
A location — a key element in the effort to get the museum built — is still a question mark.

O’Hagan said he’s interested in the central part of the country, so it’s accessible from both coasts, and although Chicago seems to be the frontrunner, it sounds like that could change in the time it takes to write lots of zeros on a check.

He said he’s looking for a location with a long literary tradition, a large city, friendly to culture and one with an active philanthropic community.

Minnesota fits that bill.

“You’ve got [Sinclair] Lewis, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, just a terrific tradition,” he said.

And sitting in his shuttle outside the hotel, he mentioned the James J. Hill Reference Library, which he could see across Rice Park and next to the library.

Someone must have mentioned that the majestic Italian Renaissance-style building, built in the urbane Beaux Arts Neoclassical mode, would make a great location for a literary museum. Don’t know what the Hill folks would think of that, though.

His whirlwind weekend tour also included stops at the University of Minnesota library, the Loft, the Minnesota Center for the Book, the Historical Society and an appearance on TPT’s “Almanac” show.

“I was delighted to get better understanding of what’s happening here,” O’Hagan said. “And if someone steps up to plate tomorrow — with the funding — we could get started.”

Mega-bucks for museum project
O’Hagan, an Irish-born businessman, said he always had a love of books and, after retirement, took courses in literature.

A little over a year ago, he began testing his concept of a museum dedicated to American writers and their works. “I wanted to see if people thought it was a kooky idea,” he said. “But the response has been positive and enthusiastic.”

His rationale for the project: Art museums abound, sports have their Halls of Fame; and there’s even a Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland. Other countries have literature museums, he said, but America, with its great literary tradition, doesn’t.

O’Hagan says he’s now determined that it is an idea worth pursuing. “Now we do the hard work of making it happen,” he said.

And making it happen will be expensive. His projected price tag is $200 million.

“It’s a pretty big vision, but it’s not worth doing unless it’s done right,” he said. “We want to honor writers and their work the way they should be honored. And we want to help the public perceive the magic of the written word.”

‘A much-beloved mayor’
One of O’Hagan’s stops on his Twin Cities weekend tour was a lunch with some movers and shakers in St. Paul, to get the word out to the kind of people who can generate some interest in a big book project.

“Pat [Coleman] told me we’d be having lunch at the home of a much-beloved mayor, so I assumed it was his brother [current St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman]. But it was George Latimer.”

Latimer, who was mayor in the ’70s and early ’80s, is a congenial, learned and respected civic elder these days, and he chairs the board of the Friends of the St. Paul Libary. He and O’Hagan hit it off famously, as a group of a dozen or so locals listened to O’Hagan’s vision.

“There was some real chemistry there — two bright, articulate men with sharp tongues,” Pat Coleman said. “There was good information sharing at the meeting, good give and take.”

Latimer said he was impressed by O’Hagan and his dream:

“In these times, when you hear that it will take $200 million to start a museum, the first reaction is: What’s that?

“But I say, this man has a vision, and he’s a man with a mission. I wouldn’t bet against him,” Latimer said.” If enough people with the necessary resources hear his convincing story — that American literature needs a place, just as the great artists have places — I believe he’s going to do it.

“I don’t know where it will be, but I’d bet that it will happen.”