July 19, 2010

NEA slashes budget for popular Big Read program


The National Endowment for the Arts has slashed the budget for the popular Big Read program, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Jane Henderson. She notes that the agency has announced its most recent grants will total only $1 million, dispersed to 75 nonprofit groups. Last year, the NEA handed out almost four times that much to many more institutions — $3.7 million to 267 libraries, schools, and other nonprofits. The year before, it was $4.4 million spread over 334 grants.

The Big Read — run from its inception until last January by then-Director of Literature (and Melville House author and translator) David Kipen (see the earlier report) — is, as Henderson explains, “a program to encourage communities to read, discuss and celebrate a single book.”

As Henderson notes, the program had a stirring beginning, when …

… then-NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a published poet, explained the impetus for starting the Big Read: “The NEA’s landmark 2004 study, Reading at Risk, showed that literary reading in the U.S. is in steep decline. No single program can entirely reverse this trend. But if cities nationally unite to adopt the Big Read, our community-wide reading program, together we can restore reading to its essential place in American culture. Call me naive, but I can actually envision an America in which average people talk about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ with the same enthusiasm as they bring to ‘Lost’ or ‘Desperate Housewives.'”

Now, “NEA spokeswoman Liz Stark said the program has been scaled back because it is now established and the NEA wants to ‘fund it at a sustainable level,” Henderson reports, although apparently the NEA’s idea of how the program “sustains” itself is that “other groups are expected to take over funding and planning.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives