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Literary Cleveland / Piper Youtzy
Literary Cleveland's new space at 13002 Larchmere Blvd.
During the pandemic, it seemed for a while that things could have gone either way for Literary Cleveland.
Its 14 paid programs, which often saw more than 2,000 attendees a year, were basically impossible to host. Matt Weinkam, the nonprofit's executive director, segued quickly to Zoom courses, a lifesaver that helped it survive where others didn't. Inkubator, for example, often billed as the largest free writing conference in the country, fell by the wayside during Covid.
"Art can sometimes seem superfluous in an emergency, but that's when it becomes essential," Weinkam wrote in a reflection this January. A revamped class load, and a revamped mission, was appropriate, Weinkam realized. "The pandemic reinvented Literary Cleveland. We expanded from a community of writers to an organization that uses writing to build community."
Next week, that realization continues as Literary Cleveland moves into its first combined office and event space. A glass-fronted, former two-story Polish grocery on Larchmere Blvd., the new digs will allow Literary Cleveland to flourish, its staff members said, in a manner improbable in its first seven years.
The space, across the street from Loganberry Books, will open to the public starting April 21st at 7 p.m., with the kickoff of Literary Cleveland's Poetry Festival
. It will feature writers Stephanie Ginese, Keisha Nicole Foster, Zachary Thomas, and others.
"It's the biggest space we've had, and the first where we can hold events in a real area," Weinkam said. "We're really, really excited about it."
For Michelle R. Smith, a Cleveland-native poet and Lit Cleveland's programming director since 2021, the shift from cramped offices in Gordon Square to their breezy 1,300 square feet—which can fit about 50 people—in Larchmere comes with its own joyful tones of coming-of-age.
"I think we're coming out of being a small nonprofit into being medium sized nonprofit. You know, whatever that means," Smith told Scene. The move "signifies moving out of a phase where you're not quite sure if you're going to make it next year to knowing that very likely that you will make it for the next couple of years."
Though the pandemic put a wrench in arts organizations across the country, its effect on Cleveland's is somewhat hard to measure, depending on whom you ask. Since March 2020, arts startups like Impossible Art in Hingetown and a planned home in Tremont for the Cleveland Review of Books
join legacy incubators like Lake Erie Ink and the Skirball Center at the Cuyahoga County Library.
Yet, in 2020, Twelve Literary Arts, a University Circle-based literary school for youth, put a pause on its programming. It's unclear, Smith said, how Literary Cleveland will fill "such a wide hole in the community," Weinkham said.
With a healthy financial outlook through 2026, staff told Scene, Literary Cleveland will be welcoming the housewarming with some solid numbers.
Its latest annual report, from December, showed its membership doubling from 500 members in 2018 to 945 late last year.
(Members still pay $50/year, $25/year for students and veterans, as they did four years ago.) The same growth was seen in its class signups—a collective 2,500 attendees to its 100 or so workshops and seminars to "about 6,000" in 2022. "Doubling every metric since 2019," Weinkam said.
Smith herself owes the spike to a concentrated engagement effort with readers and writers alike.
Classes often sold out quickly, like its "Developing A Writer Habit" or "Furthering Writing Habits Through Feedback." They tap into, Smith said, a general curiosity many Clevelanders find in the sometimes nebulous notion of craft. The same goes for its knack of handpicking the right headliners, like Thrity Umbrigar and Paula McCain, or year-long poetry series featuring popular poet Tracy K. Smith.
"We want to give the community of writers in Cleveland, the community of readers in Cleveland, literary enthusiasts in Cleveland, what they want," Smith said.
Weinkam said that the new space won't be ready to host the full suite of classes and events until late summer of this year. Until then, Weinkam said there's post-move-in work to be done: building a library of local works, of issues of the Paris Review
and McSweeney's Quarterly,
and installing art.
"We've got some shelving to put up," Weinkam said. "Some decorating to do. You know, to make it really feel like home."
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