UND Writers Conference wins federal grant, makes plans for fall sessions

While planning for 2021’s 52nd annual conference, organizers also look to Fall 2020 for author engagements

For the sixth time since 2010, the UND Writers Conference has received grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The award was named as part of a June 10 announcement from the independent federal agency, which approved more than $84 million in grants to various organizations for its second round of FY 2020 funding. The University of North Dakota was one of two organizations in the state to receive such a grant in the Art Works category.

According to the NEA, Art Works grants support artistically excellent projects that celebrate creativity and cultural heritage, invite mutual respect for differing beliefs and values and enrich humanity.

The $10,000 awarded will help fund the appearances of influential authors on UND’s campus. In past years, NEA awards have also contributed to the University’s digital preservation efforts for the conference, according to Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English and director of the UND Writers Conference.

Since 1970, for more than 50 years, the UND Writers Conference has been committed to providing open access to the literary arts to the Grand Cities, the Red River Valley, North Dakota and the region.

“The arts are an essential part of a vibrant, thriving, engaged community,” Alberts said. “They increase the quality of life and are part of a healthy economy. As open access is also one of the National Endowment for the Arts’ main goals, we continue to be honored that, since 2010, the NEA has repeatedly recognized the efforts of the UND Writers Conference.”

“Roots to the Earth”

More specifically, the backing of the NEA will be instrumental in Alberts’ planning for the 52nd Annual UND Writers Conference, titled “Roots to the Earth.”

In 2021, Alberts wants to bring authors and literary figures to campus who have tackled subjects of sustainability and climate change in their work. The English professor, who every year reads, researches and invites authors on behalf of the conference, has noticed an increasing focus on environmental concerns throughout literature in recent years.

“When I’m selecting a theme, I often look around to see what other people are doing on campus, or in the community or state, and try to select things that I think would be of interest to people,” said Alberts. “We have students majoring in Environmental Studies and faculty researching in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy who are doing really interesting work on sustainability science.

“This was an opportunity to not only go across campus and bridge the ampersand between ‘Arts & Sciences,’ but also hopefully connect across the state with other NDUS institutions active in this field. There are so many possibilities, and I wanted to use literature to highlight the liberal arts, the visual arts and the natural sciences.”

In the following passage, Alberts describes the ideas behind “Roots to the Earth.”

“Although the arts may seem like an unlikely source of assistance, the 52nd Annual UND Writers Conference (March 24-26, 2021) will feature authors and artists whose work considers the role of place, the environment, and sustainability in light of our global situation. The hope is that through the arts, we might have a conversation about the impact we, as individuals and as a community, have on climate change and the planet.

“However, as US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who participated in the 1987 UND Writers Conference, recently stated: ‘We all have to work together, because we are together. We can either work together to change our relationship with the Earth, or we’re all going down together. It’s that simple.’”

Alberts is at work not only developing the 2021 Writers Conference, but also creating sessions for the Fall 2020 semester that can make up for spring’s COVID-19 cancellations. UND archival image.

Hybrid approach for fall sessions

In addition to planning next year’s conference, Alberts also is keeping her eye on this year. In fact, now that UND is preparing for a fall semester that will see a mix of in-person and online coursework, Alberts wants to organize a similarly hybrid event to supplement what was supposed to have been the 2020 Writers Conference.

The coronavirus prompted the cancellation of much of the 2020 conference, but a successful virtual session was held with author Matt Young in March. So, Alberts’ idea is to connect with other authors virtually, while also hosting a small number of on-campus engagements throughout the fall semester.

In doing so, the fall Writers Conference sessions will maintain the 2020 theme of “The Working Classes.”

“Although it’s still in the planning stages, what we’re hoping to do is something that’s staggered throughout the fall, instead of being a three-day event,” Alberts said. “Working with authors’ schedules and current travel restrictions, we’re creating a platform for virtual reading sessions and panels. We also want to recreate what people would expect of a typical conference, but with our new safety standards put in place.”

More details can be expected later this summer, as dates and venues are further established.

“We’re remaining flexible, but we’re trying to not disrupt our tradition and still provide open access to the arts, which we’ve always done,” continued Alberts. “In this case, hosting virtually might in fact provide better accessibility to the community.”

Bradley Rundquist, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UND, commented on the continued support from the NEA by lauding the Writers Conference as an important contribution to the University’s liberal arts mission, in addition to its role as a community forum for diverse perspectives.

“The Art Works award highlights the value of the UND Writers Conference and the authors and artists who bring a unique learning and engagement opportunity to the University, our students and the larger community while addressing a global dialogue,” Rundquist said.

In addition to its funding announcement, the National Endowment for the Arts also has information on its site about the state-by-state impact of the arts, with regard to economic health.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2017 showed that arts provided a $1.5 billion value to North Dakota’s economy with an industry presence employing more than 14,000 people. Those employed in the arts were compensated an estimated $900 million in 2017.