Writers Conference: Funds found, funds kept?

Fifth NEA grant, secured by UND’s Crystal Alberts for the Upper Great Plains’ signature literary event, threatened by federal budget cuts

2008 UND Writers Conference at UND

Famed author Salman Rushdie (left), was the headliner for the 2008 UND Writers Conference. The Upper Midwest’s signature literary event, now in its 49th year, was recently funded for the fifth time since 2010 by the National Endowment for the Arts. Rushdie joined fellow authors Alexandra Fuller and Peter Kuper (above) on a panel at that year’s event.

Three months have passed since the latest edition of the UND Writers Conference was closed and put on the shelf of University history.

But conference director Crystal Alberts is already many chapters into the next volume, planning for the 49th year of the event.

Now, some highly sought-after federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will help take those plans from paper to the public. Alberts has been awarded an NEA Art Works grant of $10,000 to help fund the 2018 Writers Conference – her fifth such award since 2010.

“It was exciting because it’s unusual, from what I’ve been told, to get that many in such a short period of time,” Alberts beamed.

The NEA Art Works award is no easy grab. Of the more than 1,700 applications received this year, only 1,029 will receive a grant, ranging between $10,000 and $100,000. Competition is high, especially since the NEA recently made adjustments to scale back on the number of applications they’ll even accept.

“The fact that Crystal has received so many of these grants reveals two things – what a great grant writer she is, and the importance of the work that she’s directing,” said College of Arts & Sciences Dean and UND Senior Vice Provost Debbie Storrs. “She really has helped sustain the Writers Conference at the level that faculty and the community have come to expect.”

The grant is a victory for the annual gathering that brings in prominent authors and artists from around the country. But although the award announcements have been made public by the NEA, the grants are technically still “recommendations.” This year, contributions will be contingent on whether or not Congress passes a budget that includes funding for the NEA and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities).

Alberts is optimistic that the funding will come through, but realizes that things can change quickly with the current climate in Washington.

“I’m operating under the assumption that I can go forward with a responsible budget that is within what I normally spend, and we’ll be able to have the same quality authors that we’ve always been able to have during a three-day conference,” she said. “Should something come up, I have – as every executive director has – a plan B, C, D, E and F to make it work.”

Those backup plans include a continued endowment from the Estate of Alice Lillian Carlson, as well as many other forms of support from other community organizations and friends and graduates of the University.

“There are alumni who are extremely passionate about this. They keep finding ways of donating,” Alberts said. “Even if certain grants are no longer available, their donations and gifts are making a huge difference.”

Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English and director of the UND Writers Conference, addresses the 2017 gathering of the Writers Conference on the UND campus. Photo courtesy of Sheila Liming

Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English and director of the UND Writers Conference, addresses the 2017 gathering of the Writers Conference on the UND campus. Photo courtesy of Sheila Liming

Community benefits

Alberts has some ideas about why the NEA recommended the Writers Conference for yet another grant. The first reason is the simplest – it’s a longstanding tradition in an area that needs these kinds of traditions.

“[The NEA] has learned that we bring in top-notch authors, and that it is serving a rural population that might not otherwise have access to the arts,” she supposed.

The NEA’s mission is developing creative and diverse communities through the arts, and the benefits of that support in less-populated states like North Dakota are multifold. Alberts explained that many programs in the Grand Forks area are at least partially federally funded (through the North Dakota Arts Council, which receives much of its budget from the NEA), such as the Empire Arts Center and the North Dakota Ballet.

These projects not only create learning and growth experiences for children and adults, but also make an economic impact by attracting businesses to the region.

“This is one reason why the City of Grand Forks is so committed to making sure there’s a vibrant arts community,” Alberts said. “For people who are going to come to work in the creative economy or in technology, this is something that employees want. These federal funds give back to the community in so many ways that people don’t even realize.”

‘Truth and Lies’

2017 marked another wildly successful Writers Conference, with engaged crowds discussing works tied together under the theme “Citizen.” Alberts’ theme for 2018 will be just as socially relevant – another reason she believes the NEA application review committee looked fondly on her proposal.

She chose “Truth and Lies” many months ago – well before the conception of “alternative facts” – as an investigation of the role of art, history and journalism in seeking and speaking truth, and defining what “truth” even is in our current cultural understanding.

“There was this sense that suddenly truth was being brought into question, even in journalism, which you normally don’t see,” Alberts reflected. “Increasingly there’s been bias and separation in journalism so that you now have to think about the particular angle of any news source before you read it.”

No writers have yet been signed to the 2018 conference – it’s still early for that – but Alberts is already examining ideas to get multiple areas of campus involved in the planning and conversation, especially within the student populations of the UND Department of Communication, Department of Criminal Justice and School of Law.

“I’m looking at ways to pull from places that might not otherwise think about it. The theme this year, involving history, non-fiction and journalism, may bring a shift in audience,” she said.

The 49th Annual UND Writers Conference will be held March 21-23, 2018. For more on this and past conferences, please visit the Writers Conference website.