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Published December 13, 2023

By Elizabeth Derby 

In 2000, a newly minted poet in too-tight shoes applied for a job with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, as we were known then. His references came from his childhood Boy Scout camp director and Charles Wright, future U.S. Poet Laureate and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. 

Kevin in 2023. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

“I had no good clothing for job interviews, really, so I had to borrow my roommate’s shoes,” Kevin McFadden explained. “It kept me on my toes, so to speak, and the rest is history.” 

He got the job. Fresh off his MFA in creative writing from UVA, Kevin became a program associate with the Virginia Festival of the Book, where he worked for nine years, before transitioning into the role of Virginia Humanities’ Chief Operating Officer, a job he held for more than a decade.

During his time with Virginia Humanities, Kevin’s poetry appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. His 2008 book, Hardscrabble, won the George Garrett Prize for Poetry. Despite his talents as a poet, however, Kevin’s professional career steered toward supporting fellow artists by helping fund and showcase their work and provide resources for the public to engage with the arts themselves. 

Those who knew Kevin in the latter half of his recently concluded twenty-three-year tenure with Virginia Humanities might be surprised to find out he entered the workforce with an MFA in poetry, given that his role as COO involved overseeing the planning and management of programs and consisted largely of budgets, staffing, and the execution of long-term organizational strategy. But in Kevin’s mind, poetry and his work with Virginia Humanities shared a similar focus.  

“Poetry requires thinking about words and the charges they carry, and what has to happen in what order,” he said. “It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make something mean something. ‘The Virginia Festival of the Book’ has a meaning that people have been striving to give it for over 30 years. So how do we keep building that energy? Structures come and go, people come and go, but we leave behind us the idea of an organization, and to me, that is a very creative communal expression.” 

“The impact of everything Kevin did behind the scenes is incalculable. All I can say is, it was magic.”

Garrett Queen, Book Arts Program Director

Kevin’s contributions to the expression of Virginia Humanities are many, with a common theme. Whether managing high-level budget conversations or hanging posters in the hall, Kevin was known for his steady hand and generous heart—qualities he demonstrated in his very first interview.  

“My first impression of Kevin was that he was really smart, funny, and I felt at ease with him,” said Nancy Damon, a long-time director of the Virginia Festival of the Book who retired in 2014. “After his interview, I called Woody, one of his references, who was the director of a Boy Scout camp. When Woody heard Kevin’s name his voice perked right up. It felt like he leaned into the phone when he said, ‘You know, Kevin is something of an intellectual.’” 

Kevin and Nancy worked closely together for nine years, developing, managing, and growing the annual book festival to 20,000 attendees per year. Despite the challenges of the work, Kevin’s humor helped make it easy—sometimes literally.  

“We got one of those ‘easy buttons’ that Staples used to hand out,” Nancy said, “and whenever a project was particularly complex or challenging, Kevin would hit the button so it said, ‘That was easy!’ He was just hilarious.”

Kevin turns the crank of one of the printing presses at the Virginia Center for the Book’s Book Arts Studio in 2017. Photo by Garrett Queen/Virginia Humanities

When the role of chief operating officer became available, and Kevin decided to throw his hat in the ring. “The book festival as a project is so complex already,” he said. “It has its own fundraising and financing. You need to manage staff. There were a lot of aspects of the organizational work that I’d already done, so it was just a matter of pitching it to the board and our staff and saying, ‘Would you trust me to be the person who does that, and hand me the keys to the shop?’” 

The answer was a resounding “yes.” Kevin says he’s “very, very grateful” to have had the opportunity to make the leap into leadership, and that the job itself was tremendously rewarding. “I learned so much from listening to fellows talks, or going to book festival events, or checking out Folklife events, or listening to With Good Reason,” he said.  

He also learned the ins and outs of nonprofit work and had the chance to support others in their career growth and navigation, all while holding a calm, long-term vision for the collective. “I have that great faith that everything’s gonna be okay,” he said. “I see work as a kind of bargain that needs to work for the person and the organization, and it’s our job to keep the bargain good. When it’s time for someone to move on, we’ll miss them and their strengths, but I know the organization will move from one strength to another.” 

As COO, Kevin’s faith and clear-eyed calm helped Virginia Humanities do just that, pivoting in response to the 2020 pandemic and moving the physical location of the organization from its long-time headquarters not long after. He also oversaw the dispersion of funding from private, state, and university donations to the organization’s many programs and projects, providing the lifeblood that made it possible for many initiatives to thrive.  

Kevin chats with a member artist at the Book Arts Studio in 2015.

“Kevin somehow found ways to equitably share funding through various projects,” said Garret Queen, director of the Book Arts program at our Virginia Center for the Book. “We as directors weren’t always aware of the things that would happen, but he was always doing a tremendous amount of things in the background.” 

Looking back at those many things, Kevin said that some of his favorite and most meaningful projects have been those that have made art more accessible, in Virginia and beyond. For starters, he cites his intentional focus on incorporating data-driven metrics in Virginia Humanities’ approach to marketing and fundraising. In the beginning of his tenure, he said, “we could always tell a story, but we didn’t always tell it with data.” His drive to incorporate information like the number of podcast listeners, website visits, and more led to a sea change in how the organization measured and talked about its impact. 

Kevin also supported the push to organize Virginia Humanities’ vast library of digital assets, as well as to digitize the many analog projects stored in the archives. Now, decades of cultural programs are being made more accessible via a reimagined online catalog of assets. “Sometimes, looking at these things that were saved twenty or thirty years ago, I get goosebumps, because it was a really great program, and it would have been gone,” he said.  

Kevin was quick to describe himself as a team player, rather than the lead on any one project. With media preservation, for example, he said, “I wasn’t by any means the digital humanist or archivist, but I knew the importance of it. So I could help sell the concept to the General Assembly and the governor and explain why it was worth giving Virginia Humanities more funds to take this seriously.” 

“We owe it to each other to make [the humanities] an experience that everybody has access to, and that’s part of our charge and our values.”

Kevin McFadden

Of all the meaningful projects Kevin campaigned for, the Book Arts Studio stands out. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Kevin, a dedicated book artist and letterpress enthusiast, spent many hours working in the studio. But as COO, his involvement went above and beyond that of his fellow member artists.

“At the Virginia Center for the Book, we have the largest collection of letterpress, of material type, in all of Virginia that’s accessible for the public to use. That’s a pretty special thing,” he said. “But unless you visited, saw it, and printed with it, you wouldn’t know how special it is.” 

So Kevin, in partnership with typographer and designer Lucas Czarnecki, revived a project for a specimen book, a printed volume of typeface samples rendered on the letterpress equipment. The final version, titled Speaking in Faces, was longer, more elaborate, and ultimately more successful than he’d hoped. In addition to making many print copies, it was published on Amazon.com, where it’s available to anyone for $25. “It’s affordable, and you can look through every one of the fonts,” he said. “That’s the best storytelling device we could imagine for this wealth of a resource we have.”

Kevin greets Governor Ralph Northam at our office in 2021. Photo by Trey Mitchell/Virginia Humanities

But Kevin’s support for book arts didn’t stop there. He became known for emceeing the Raucous Auction, the program’s annual fundraiser, and the elaborate costumes he wore. “I’m shameless on behalf of fundraising,” he said with a laugh. “Shameless enough to show up to work in a bunny costume.” 

Lyall Harris is a writer and arts educator who worked alongside Kevin as a practitioner of book arts at the Book Arts Studio. She moved to Charlottesville in part because of the studio, which she came to realize owed much of its vibrancy to Kevin’s support and love for letterpress technology.  

“Kevin is such an amazing combination of humility, diplomacy, and passion,” Harris said. “He cares so deeply for other people and will always get out of the way for the sake of someone else. And at the same time, he’s absolutely brilliant and creative and just so clever.” 

Kevin emphasized his work with Virginia Humanities was so much more than a job. 

“There’s so much of the love of the humanities that is a gift,” he said. “All of its beauty and complexity only makes sense in the world of giving each other gifts. At the same time, we’re enacting these humanities programs in a democracy. So that implies that these gifts should be accessible; they should be something available to people. But too often these things have been kept behind a museum glass, or a fence, with some sort of admission price. We owe it to each other to make this an experience that everybody has access to, and that’s part of our charge and our values.” 

During his time with Virginia Humanities, Kevin truly helped put those values into action. Even as he enters the next chapter of his career at UVA’s Rare Book School, his legacy will continue to spread the gift of the humanities.  

Reflecting on Kevin’s time at Virginia Humanities, Queen put it best: “The impact of everything Kevin did behind the scenes is incalculable. All I can say is, it was magic.”

A program of Virginia Humanities, the Center works within a network of national affiliates to promote books, reading, literacy, and the literary life of Virginia.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.

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