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Complete History Narrative

In 1983, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy founded the Writers Institute at Albany with part of a fellowship awarded him from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. As part of that award, fifteen thousand dollars for five years went to the institution of Kennedy’s choice, the University at Albany, State University of New York. The University made a commitment to match those funds.

Less than a year later, Governor Mario M. Cuomo signed into law the legislation creating the New York State Writers Institute, giving it goals and responsibilities to conduct a broad range of cultural and educational literary activities. The Writers Institute has a mandate to provide "a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination," and "to encourage the development of writing skills at all levels of education throughout the state." Tom Smith, UAlbany English Department professor worked with Kennedy in the organization and development of the Writers Institute and served as the Institute’s Associate Director for its first ten years.

Hosted by the University at Albany, the Institute draws upon and complements existing programs in imaginative writing and the allied arts to help provide the broadest possible educational base for students of writing and the literary community statewide. Its programming receives strong support from the Capital area’s literary community, drawing audiences from eastern and southern New England, New York City and a large part of central and eastern New York State.

The Institute is the fruition of Kennedy's vision for a literary crossroads in Albany. As it continues to grow, the institute's central aim is to celebrate literature and to enhance the role of writers as a community within the larger community.

By special legislative mandate in 1985, the Institute was given the responsibility of awarding both the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers (State Author) and the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets (State Poet) every two years. The Governor awards each citation upon the recommendation of two advisory panels of distinguished authors convened under the aegis of the Institute.

In 1988 the Institute entered into a partnership with Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY to sponsor the New York State Summer Writers Institute, a month-long series of creative writing courses in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, and editing. The courses may be taken for college credit or noncredit.

From 1988-1995 the Institute significantly increased its public outreach by initiating the public radio Book Show. Coproduced by WAMC-FM, Albany's National Public Radio affiliate, The Book Show was a weekly half-hour interview program featuring some of the most celebrated names in literature. Initially hosted by Tom Smith (1984-94), and then by novelist and short story writer Douglas Glover (1994-95), The Book Show was heard on over 26 stations throughout the United States, Australia, and on the Armed Forces Network.

In late 1995, following the untimely death of Tom Smith, Donald Faulkner joined the Institute, first as Associate Director, and then as Director. During Faulkner’s tenure, and with the pivotal efforts of Assistant Director Suzanne Lance, Secretary Judy Axenson, and Program Fellow Mark Koplik, the Institute significantly increased its program offerings and profile. With the creation of a website with and online magazine and expansive profiles of its visiting writers, the Institute added to its visibility and promotional efforts. In 1997, in partnership with the Capital Region’s PBS affiliate WMHT, the Institute expanded The Book Show into a regular public television program, The Writer. This weekly half-hour series of video portraits focused on writers who were guests of the Institute. In 1999 the Institute inaugurated the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute, a week-long writing workshop for New York State high school students. Edward Schwarzschild joined the Institute staff in 2001 with a dual appointment in the University at Albany’s English Department, to assist with program development and to teach a course based on the work of Institute visiting writers each semester. Writers-in-Residence Lydia Davis and Lynne Tillman, joined the Institute as Fellows in 2003 and 2004 respectively. W. Langdon Brown, who had served as Chair of the UAlbany Theatre Department for many years, joined the Institute in 2005 to direct the Authors Theatre program. In 2007, the Institute and the University at Albany entered into a partnership with Fence magazine and Fence Books, thus bringing Fence editor Rebecca Wolff to the staff. Office secretary Judy Axenson retired in 2007, and is succeeded by Erin Booy.

Programs in development include the digitizing and dissemination of the Institute’s audio/video archive (now one of the most comprehensive in the country). The goal of this project is to make the Institute’s archive of visiting writer interviews, seminars, and readings available to researchers and readers through a web based searchable database. The Institute is also working toward establishing a Writing Fellows Program, similar in design to Stanford’s Stegner Fellowships, in addition to providing a home for Cities of Refuge North America, an organization that provides safe havens for persecuted writers worldwide.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.