Words matter: Who founded Literary Arts and who didn’t

Somehow the idea that Brian Booth founded Literary Arts entered the public discourse, but did he really?

What happens when an error of fact and maybe even an error of interpretation of that error of fact somehow find their way into the public record?

In my case, you write a little something about it, hoping to correct the record and maybe the interpretation. This one is a little on the sensitive side because it involves an organization I respect (Literary Arts), a journalist I respect (Steve Duin), and a man I respect (the late Brian Booth). I’m not interested at all in making you think less of any of them. Still, I think the error needs to be corrected.

I didn’t read the Steve Duin column (published October 18, 2014) that Literary Arts included in its year-end fundraising letter when it was published in The Oregonian back in October. But when I did finally see it, I stopped short at this sentence: “And the Booth fund—which memorializes the founder of Literary Arts—is a novel partnership…” But wait, I thought, Booth wasn’t the founder of Literary Arts, not by a long shot.

Brian Booth was a great supporter of writers in Oregon./Photo from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

Brian Booth was a great supporter of writers in Oregon./Photo from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

He was a great supporter of writing in Oregon, and we should be thankful for that. He even founded the Oregon Institute for Literary Arts, which invented the Oregon Book Awards and a literary fellowship program that are now part of Literary Arts. BUT he hadn’t founded Literary Arts, at least in my memory, I thought.

I decided to do a little checking, and not because I opposed the thrust of the fundraising letter—which was an ask to help build a $2 million endowment “to fund the creation of new literary work in Oregon.” I’m all for that! But the true history of an arts organization as successful and important as Literary Arts should be accurate, yes? And credit for its founding should be dispensed judiciously and accurately, as a way of honoring both the truth (as nearly as we can describe it) and the people who did the founding. One of the primary repositories for that accurate history should be the organization itself, and so it’s important to project that history accurately in its materials and representations. That wasn’t happening in this case. So here I am.

My version of that history comes from Julie Mancini and Sherry Prowda, who took over the old Portland Arts & Lectures in 1985 from Karen Frank, and my wife, Megan McMorran, who started working at PAL in 1987 and continued through 2002. I had worked with Prowda at Willamette Week for a couple of years before she took over PAL, and she asked me to serve on an advisory committee of PAL, so yes, I remember some of the record directly myself.

The story begins with Portland Arts & Lectures, which staged its first lecture in the fall of 1984. Karen Frank started PAL, patterning it after City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco, and for personal reasons turned her version of it over to her friend Sherry Prowda the following year. Prowda enlisted Julie Mancini in the cause. They brought Tom Wolfe to town to open the 1985-86 season, and quickly, the lecture series caught fire, moving first to the First Congregational Church (my favorite venue) and then to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where it routinely sold out the 2,700 seats. Along with the existence of Powell’s and a robust Multnomah County Library, PAL cemented Portland’s reputation as a bookish kind of town. Prowda left town, moved to Seattle and founded Seattle Arts & Lectures in 1987 (its first lectures were held in 1988), leaving PAL in Mancini’s hands.

In 1986 (or 1987, depending perhaps on how you look at the mushy founding ground of nonprofit organizations, including Oregon ArtsWatch), Booth started the Oregon Institute for Literary Arts, the two main programs of which were writers fellowship grants and the Oregon Book Awards, first presented in 1987. It was in no way connected to PAL. By 1993, though, OILA found itself in debt and sought to merge with Portland Arts & Lectures, which by then had become a veritable literary juggernaut and financially successful, especially by Portland arts organization standards. A merger was effected, and Booth joined the board. PAL kept the two primary OILA programs going, took on OILA’s one employee, and grew the programs considerably over the years. Booth left the board after a year.

By my calculus, Julie Mancini, second from left, was one of the founders of Literary Arts./Photo from the Literary Arts website

By my calculus, Julie Mancini, second from left, was one of the founders of Literary Arts./Photo from the Literary Arts website

I think the seeds of confusion began back then: The organization, under Mancini and board president Steve Wynne, decided to change the name to Literary Arts around the time of the merger, because their ambitions went beyond being a lecture series. Not only did Literary Arts keep the fellowships and book awards steaming along, but it also added an extensive Writers in the Schools program (started by McMorran) and other smaller programs in subsequent years, funded by ticket sales to the lecture series, donations, and grants.

So where did the confusion about who founded the organization start? Maybe it from Duin’s obituary for Booth in 2012, which claimed that Booth had founded Literary Arts in 1986 (though mostly it recited his numerous achievements and the words of those who remembered him fondly). For our purposes, here’s the key sentence: “Booth founded Literary Arts in 1986 and — with his wife, Gwyneth Gamble Booth, at his side — created the Oregon Book Awards and Oregon Literary Fellowships.” That’s just incorrect. Duin then repeated that error in the more recent column about the Booth Writers’ Fund that stopped me short. Booth’s claim to fame in Oregon, fortunately, rests on far more than NOT founding Literary Arts, which Duin also explained in his warm, affectionate obituary.

So, on the factual side of things: Booth didn’t found Literary Arts in 1986. He founded OILA, a separate organization, in 1986.

Now we are getting into the interpretation part: If Booth isn’t THE founder of Literary Arts (in 1986 or any other year), could he still be called A founder? We know that OILA was absorbed by a larger organization, which then called itself Literary Arts. Would we call the founder of an organization swallowed up by another one, a founder of the bigger organization? Would we say, for example, that Marquis Mills Converse founded Nike because Nike bought Converse in 2003? No, Mr. Converse founded… the Converse Rubber Shoe Company. Nike didn’t found Converse, either: It carries on the Converse brand. And we wouldn’t say that Larry Colton founded Literary Arts, even though Literary Arts just swallowed up Wordstock, which Colton DID found. Colton had nothing to do with the founding days of Literary Arts, any more than Booth did. That’s just not how we use the word “founder.”

If OILA and PAL had been more nearly equals, then Duin (and Literary Arts executive director Andrew Proctor, who calls Booth “a founder” of Literary Arts) might have a point. Oregon Ballet Theatre, for example, was started in 1989 when two local companies, Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre, merged. It is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; Literary Arts is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, based on the founding date of Portland Arts & Lectures, not the date of its absorption of OILA. And though Proctor maintains that this was simply a practical decision he made regarding birthdays, in fact, OILA and PAL were not equal partners, as explained above. OILA was like Converse, and PAL was like Nike.

So, if I understand it this way, why doesn’t Andrew Proctor, the executive director of Literary Arts, who has reinvigorated the organization since taking over in 2009? And if he does see it the way I do, then why include Duin’s column (with its erroneous assignment of the founding of the organization to Booth) in his fundraising letter?

I decided to email him, and when our email exchange degenerated a bit, we talked on the phone. I’m afraid it didn’t go well. When we concluded, he said I was hostile and playing “gotcha” journalism. Ah, the Sunday mornings of a journalist!

Although it might be entertaining, I won’t go into our parries and thrusts as I tried to figure out what was going on. (I’m sure it DID sound hostile to him!) I’ll just try to reproduce his responses to the primary questions.

I don’t think Proctor actually disagrees with the account as I described it, just with my interpretation of it. For him, Booth’s participation constitutes “founding.” Over and over, he reduced that history to the following formulation, which I’ll paraphrase: Portland Arts & Lectures was founded in 1984 by Karen Frank and continued by Sherry Prowda and Julie Mancini in 1985. Oregon Institute for Literary Arts was founded by Brian Booth in 1986 (or 1987). The two organizations merged in 1993 and started Literary Arts. And as far as the founding issue goes, he lumps all the principals together as equal partners, at least linguistically. (The Literary Arts website mentions no names on its “our story” page, which is too bad.)

I think that reduction is too extreme and erases the reality on the ground in 1993, both the inequality of the organizations and the reason for renaming Portland Arts & Lectures “Literary Arts,” which was indirectly, not directly, related to the absorption of OILA, according to Mancini. Booth had founded a failing organization, OILA, and sought a safe haven for its programs at PAL. That was important, but it wasn’t the same thing as founding the organization that provided that haven, which had started nine years before the merger.

By the way, Proctor was the one who brought up Larry Colton in one of our emails: “P.S. One cld [could] argue we now have three founders in the form of Larry Colton since we acquired Wordstock.” And to me, that’s absurd. Larry Colton founded something: It was called Wordstock. He didn’t found Literary Arts. To think of it the way Proctor suggests means you are adding “founders” all the time. Everyone’s a founder! And that reduces the word “founder” to meaninglessness.

So Proctor really didn’t have much problem with Duin’s account, except for the unfortunate article—”the” founder, not “a” founder. He defended the decision to include it in the fundraising appeal in three ways. First, he said that he hadn’t really read Duin’s article that way. Of course, the photo caption for the article read, “Brian Booth was the founder of Literary Arts.” Which is pretty definitive.

Second, the organization’s history doesn’t name Booth as THE founder, especially the Public Services Announcement on the Literary Arts website, which was screened at the 30th anniversary celebration in the Schnitz. My only problem with that longer video history, really, is that it leaves out Sherry Prowda. But that’s because it’s a short, happy “infomercial” for the organization. Which is entirely appropriate. It’s not a definitive history. Proctor referred to Booth as a founder of the organization at that anniversary gathering (or maybe “the” founder; no one has checked the recording of the event), and he also acknowledged Mancini’s important role in the organization. So, in the larger context in Proctor’s view, the organization DOES give an accurate appraisal of things, and the disagreement over “founder” is just a word game (my words) or an interpretation. I think interpretations are important, so that wasn’t persuasive to me.

Finally, Proctor argued for the inclusion of Duin’s article on practical grounds: It’s hard to find substantial articles about arts organizations these days, and this one fit perfectly with the organization’s focus on the Brian Booth Writers’ Fund. Even though it was wrong, it advanced the cause of the organization. This is an “ends justifies the means” argument, but pointing that out to Proctor was part of my “hostility,” apparently. And I didn’t even bring up the various contradictions implicit in making all of these arguments at the same time! Things could have gotten even worse.

I contacted Steve Duin by email, too. He took full responsibility for the error, if there was one (maybe he will do some sleuthing of his own and then correct the error), though he said Proctor had talked to him about the “original mission Brian had in 1984,” which would place him in the founding year of Portland Arts & Lectures. On this one, let’s just say there was a breakdown in communication; someone misspoke or misheard. In any case, Duin thinks that Booth was THE founder of Literary Arts and has done so since writing the Booth obituary in 2012, primarily because no one ever brought it up to him, including Literary Arts itself. I guess I’m bringing it up now.

I’m nearly 2,000 words into this very narrow point. Obviously, I think it’s important; maybe you think I’m being ridiculous. I would understand. But I think it’s important for two reasons. The first is simply accuracy and precision. Why not take another sentence and explain things more fully? Why throw around a label like “founder” indiscriminately? Go ahead and explain the circumstances. I believe that Literary Arts has a responsibility to the accuracy of its history. So do we in the press. And so do we in the culture! Second, I think when you say that Booth was “a” founder of Literary Arts you automatically reduce the importance of the actual founders. Even if you praise them in another context.

Literary Arts was led to national prominence largely through the efforts of a few Portland women acting diligently for the good of literature and the community. The founder was Karen Frank, technically, but she handed the reins to Prowda and Mancini swiftly enough that I count them as founders, too. Mancini, after Prowda left, built a very successful organization, one that was able to provide a home for many programs in addition to its original lecture series. Two of them came from OILA, which was founded by Brian Booth.

That is really it. It’s not so hard. If we wanted to go on with Booth’s role, we might add: Booth’s association with the organization was brief, one year on the board, though the programs grew to their present prominence due to the hard work of the people who carried it forward after Booth left. If you call that “founding,” well, we’ll have to disagree about the definition of the term.

I use the word “founder” carefully because it’s such a powerful word. A founder creates something out of nothing; her early decisions are amplified by the fragility of the organization, for better and for worse; it’s so much easier to fold up the tent and call it day, or not even start at all. The organization founded by Frank, Prowda and Mancini survived and thrived, and ultimately, they deserve the credit and the name “founders.” (Just as Booth does for starting OILA and Colton for starting Wordstock.) A tagline Literary Arts has used is, “Words Matter.” When it comes to the word “founder,” I agree completely.

Clearly, I think sending out Duin’s article was wrong, because it’s clear the column was wrong, which even Proctor would say at this point, I think. Literary Arts broadcast the error more widely than ever instead of correcting it. What’s weird is that I hope you consider giving to the Booth fund anyway.

6 Responses.

  1. As someone who’s spent years researching a biography of a historical figure, I think it’s really important to correct unintentional errors like this, because they tend to get echoed and otherwise repeated and soon accepted as fact, and it’s even easier in the age of Google and the internet. We see this happening with famous quotations erroneously attributed to historical figures all the time (and sometimes abused for nefarious political purposes, as Ronald Reagan did with something Abraham Lincoln never said).

    An organization devoted to literary arts should be attentive to the meaning of words. Here’s the pertinent definition of “found” from dictionary.com.

    verb (used with object)
    1. to set up or establish on a firm basis or for enduring existence:
    to found a new publishing company.
    2. to lay the lowest part of (a structure) on a firm base or ground:
    a house founded on solid rock.
    3. to base or ground (usually followed by on or upon):
    a story founded on fact.
    4. to provide a basis or ground for.

    Synonyms:
    1. organize, inaugurate, institute, originate.

    Brian Booth is certainly an Oregon literary hero. Do these terms accurately describe his role in the origin of Literary Arts?
    Note: the example used in definition 3 “story founded in fact” comes from the dictionary, not from me, though I’m aware of its unintentional appropriateness here in a discussion relating to a story not founded in fact.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    As someone who continues to research historical figures in ballet and is constantly stymied by conflicting accounts and factual errors, I completely agree with Brett. I would like to correct one small error in Barry’s heartfelt post: it was Pacific Ballet Theatre, not Pacific Dance Theatre that merged with Ballet Oregon to become Oregon Ballet Theatre. And just to confuse the issue a little here, in 1985 another group of women that included Elinor Langer, whose idea it was, and me started the Friends of the Library Author’s Series. That first season included novelist Rosellen Brown, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and Robert Frost’s biographer, whose name escapes me at the moment. Jane Howard may have been a part of that first series as well, reading from her biography of Margaret Mead. It didn’t last long for various reasons, maybe three years, but I believe we helped to pave the way for Portland Arts and Lectures.

  3. Martha Ullman West says:

    One more thing: Brian Booth’s dedication to Oregon literature also manifested itself in his involvement in the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, on whose board I served for a while. It in no way diminishes Booth’s contributions to correct the historical record; I knew him a little bit and I think he would certainly want that done. Thanks Barry.

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    Thanks, Brett. A good definition is always welcome. And thanks for the correction, Martha. You’re absolutely right: Brian’s reputation is secure without what I consider the false attribution of Literary Arts to him!

  5. Martha Ullman West says:

    For the record, it was Frost biographer Peter Davidson [sp?] who came that first season of the FOL Authors Series.

  6. I welcome this thoughtful and detailed description of founding of Literary Arts; I support correcting the record whenever possible and necessary. As we’ve all stated, Brian Booth’s contributions to the literary legacy of Oregon cannot be overstated. I remember the awe with which I viewed the shelves upon shelves of first editions by Oregon authors in his home. But I also remember the early days of Arts & Lectures when I attended because my sister-in-law said we should go to this series that her friend, Julie Mancini, had a hand in putting on…There were no men’s names associated with the series at all then. Just those fine, forward-thinking women who created a wonderful tradition to honor Oregon’s commitment to literature.

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