By Richard Coulson
Culture makes money. That sounds like a damnably crass and materialistic way to justify culture, by which I mean the visual arts in all their diversity – painting and sculpture plus music, dance, theatre, film, and literature.
Of course, culture has a higher purpose than just making money; it’s designed to elevate the human spirit, to inspire and give us solace by beauty above the mundane concerns of daily life. But in these days of tight budgets and limited resources, whenever public bodies, corporate sponsors, charitable foundations or private donors are asked to support culture, they inevitably expect some tangible return on their contribution.
Whether they’re paying for bricks and mortar, or just salaries, costumes, parades and publicity, they want to see a flow-back into the economy.
That’s why in extolling our approaching “Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival”, costing an estimated $9m, our government never fails to project the added tourist and local dollars to be spent within the country.
There can be no doubt that subsidies and tax exemptions granted to the Louvre or the Metropolitan Opera benefit the finances of Paris or New York. The most vivid example in recent history is how the Guggenheim Museum saved the venerable Spanish city of Bilbao from becoming a rusty relic of industrial decay, shunned by tourists.
After the provincial authorities spent over $200m for the titanium-clad creation of architect Frank Gehry completed in 1997, within three years four million tourists arrived and later doubled, as the museum became the catalyst for the sparkling re-development of a grimy river-front zone of docks and warehouses
We do not usually think of literature as having a similar economic impact. But the publishing industry in Manhattan is a major job source, the annual book fairs in Frankfurt, Germany and Hay-on-Wye, England, are major revenue-earning events, and I just returned from a festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that has become a major date on the North American literary calendar.
Despite its awkward location in the mountains four hours northwest of Mexico City, the unspoiled colonial architecture and sunny-yet-cool climate of San Miguel have long attracted a colony of writers and artists, and plain retirees, from the United States, Canada and Europe to settle in the relaxed Mexican ambiente.
This year was the tenth anniversary of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. For five days in February, 315 full registrants – published writers or aspiring neophytes – attended 70 ninety-minute workshops and three-hour seminars led by experienced authors or publishing executives, ranging from the inspirational topic “Evoking and Organising the Fiction Draft” to the practical session “The Nuts and Bolts of Self-Publishing”, and over a thousand part-time guests attended lunches and dinners addressed by well-known literary figures like Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and Scott Turow.
Hopeful authors could read their works to critical audiences and pitch them to commercial literary agents, all topped off one night with an extravagant Mexican fiesta of song, dance, fireworks and unlimited tequila. The Conference was based in the spacious 200-room Hotel Real de Minas, where students and teachers ambled and chatted through its theatre, conference rooms, green lawns and an airy tent where hundreds of book titles (including mine) were offered for sale. The dominant language was English, but simultaneous Spanish translation was offered and a special section of Spanish-language books by Mexican authors was displayed.
An event of this scope does not spring full-blown from a sudden brainstorm – it takes years of hard work by dedicated leadership. When Susan Page arrived in San Miguel from California in 2004, she found an active clan of local writers and a host of literate readers, but no forum where they could gather to discuss their literary interests.
Susan and her husband, ceramic artist Mayer Schachter, soon created a spectacular residence combining a mini-museum plus sales-room of native Mexican handicrafts,. But her real ambition lay in the written word. Mrs Page had already published several inspirational books, including the best-seller If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I still Single? and created “relationship” advice programmes with an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
With a small group of like-minded individuals she soon organised the San Miguel Literary Sala, with monthly readings and discussions. That led to the first Writers’ Conference in 2006, with a grand total of 26 burgeoning writers and a few doubtful North American authors who were lured into teaching.
Over the years, Mrs Page – with charm, energy and not a little chutzpah – leveraged her North American literary contacts and enlisted a loyal band of local acolytes to create a conference that grew in size and reputation every year. She was able to attract keynote speakers like authors Barbara Kingsolver, Calvin Trillin and Margaret Atwood, adding a faculty that reached over 40 members in 2015, as well as a computer network for a mini-publishing industry spewing out programmes, schedules, tickets, invitations and maps that kept us all moving smoothly in the right direction.
This year the conference may have reached its maximum size. Nathan Feuerberg, a local novelist who was enticed from his creative labours to take a leading administrative role, told me that the Camino Real’s facilities could be stretched no further, and he knew of no other feasible San Miguel venue. “Do we build our own?” he wondered. Success can create its own problems.
A conference of this size is like running a small business. With no government support, simply incorporation as a non- profit Mexican company under the parent Literary Sala, Mrs Page led a team of 25 members of the executive steering committee plus about 100 volunteers, eager to answer questions, move chairs, lay cables, shuffle papers and change light-bulbs.
Finances alone were a major responsibility. With 315 registrants paying an average fee of $500, and several thousand tickets for special events sold for about $75, substantial revenues had to be disbursed carefully, the bulk of them right into the local economy. Adding about 200 guests paying $100 a night for six nights at the Camino Real, plus charges at other hotels, shops and the vibrant restaurant scene, it’s easy to visualise the economic return for the community of San Miguel. There’s enough money left to support a weekly Spanish-language radio programme and free creative writing courses for 60 local children, as well as offer prizes and scholarships.
The vibrant, free-wheeling spirit of the conference is never lost. Standing in line for a tequila at the fiesta, I was embraced by a buxom blonde whom I had never seen before. Planting a kiss on my lips, she exclaimed, “You look like a writer! Never give it up!” When asked where she was from, she admitted “Just Springfield, Illinois. But I travel everywhere! Maybe we’ll meet in Istanbul.” With that, she was gone, only to be seen again earnestly taking notes in a poetry workshop.
There’s no reason why we could not create a similar literary event here in Nassau. We are no further than San Miguel from the major cultural centres in the United States and Canada, as well as the rest of the Caribbean. We have plenty of low-cost lodgings, with the physical and intellectual facilities of the College of The Bahamas.
All that’s needed is determined and imaginative leadership, which could be found among local talent like essay writer Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, poet and scholar Nicolette Bethel, dramatist Jeannie Thompson, humorist-playwright James Catalyn, and publisher-columnist Larry Smith. Over 20 years ago, the late Eunice Humblestone, a member of the cultured Bethel family, organised a small but lively writers’ seminar at Orange Hill, led by well-known American poets. Sadly, it was never repeated.
With today’s much better communication resources via the internet, a new conference should be our target, putting the Bahamas on the literary map in the same way our National Art Gallery is putting us on the artistic map.
And, crassly, earning money.
• Richard Coulson is a retired lawyer and investment banker resident in the Bahamas. He is a financial consultant and author of A Corkscrew Life - adventures of a travelling financier.