The NEA Big Read

In 2019, Arts Connection received an NEA Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to host the Morongo Basin’s first Big Read, a month-long celebration and community read.

The program which included over 20 events from art exhibitions, to panel and book discussions, workshops and performances, aimed to build community and inspire conversation and discovery through the joy of sharing a good book. The 2019 NEA Big Read book selection Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, brought readers together around the themes of survival, legacy and community.

The NEA Big Read Kick-Off and Community Fair was held at the Mojave Desert Land Trust on September 7, 2019. An open-house celebration where community members were invited to pick-up copies of the Big Read book, learn about the wide variety of programming from our 20 partner organizations, participate in a zine-making workshop, youth art-making activities and enjoy music from the Shadow Mountain Band. The kick-off was a multi-generational event with activities for all age groups making families, young adults and seniors alike feel welcome.

Book discussions and community readings were held throughout the Morongo Basin in order to reach the greatest number of community members. Book discussions were hosted by the libraries of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, the Military Combat Center Library, Copper Mountain College and Calvin’s Joshua Tree Book Club. Community readings organized by Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library were held at ArtFx, Landers Brew, Mojave Moon Café, Space Cowboy Books, The Art Colony, and The Palms.

As part of the BIG READ, Space Cowboy Books hosted a panel discussion featuring local authors Jon Christopher, Susan Rukeyser, and Gabriel Hart curated and moderated by Jean-Paul Garnier. Each working in different sub-genres of science fiction, the authors discussed the themes of Station Eleven and the differences and similarities between speculative, literary, dystopian and science fiction.

10 additional special events were held throughout the desert region during NEA Big Read month:

Copper Mountain College Art Professor Cathy Allen and artist Karyl Newman lead an assemblage art-making workshop using the collected desert debris as part of the installation for Concourse C, an exhibition presented at the Yucca Valley Performing Arts Center.

Mil-Tree, a non-profit which brings veterans, active duty military and civilians together through arts and dialogue, presented their popular Desert Stories spoken word event on the theme of “trust in times of crisis” on September 14, 2019 at the Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground.
Harrison House hosted a Food Foraging from Native Plants workshop at their Arts and Ecology demonstration site on September 29, 2019. The workshop covered the identification and usage of native plants, the ethics of food foraging, and best practices in native plant gathering and preparation. Drawing on the book’s theme of survival, the workshop gave participants real-world food foraging skills.

In addition to hosting the kick-off, the Mojave Desert Land Trust hosted a Reading The Landscape (RTL) presentation on September 14, 2019. RTL is a set of guidelines created by the Land Trust to help locals and visitors to the region make informed decisions about engaging with our desert land and its delicate ecosystems. These tips are a resource to advise art makers throughout their creative processes, to ensure that each step is done in a way that will preserve the desert landscape for future generations.

Theatre 29 performed excerpts from Urinetown the Musical playing on the book’s post-apocalyptic theme. The selected scenes included both adults and children’s roles in order to engage the theater’s youth program participants.

Throughout the NEA Big Read month, Spark Growth used the companion book “I Am An Artist” by Pat Lowery Collins to engage over 500 K-6 Yucca Valley Elementary students, including special education students, in a discussion about the importance of art, a strong theme in Station Eleven. Readings were followed by hands-on enrichment activities matching the students’ grade levels and will invite students to use their surroundings as inspiration for art making.

Playing on Station Eleven’s distopyian narrative, Tumbleweed Art Gallery hosted a travelling exhibition in their ’72 Winnebago Mobile Gallery with a collection of “vital works for humanity” as interpreted by local artists.

What is the NEA Big Read?

An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read aims to build community, and inspire conversation and discovery through the joy of sharing a good book. The month-long program of free events and activities brings together arts and environmental organizations, local businesses, and educational partners to engage a wide range of community members, promoting literacy, the arts and community building in the Morongo Basin. Arts Connection and its’ community partners have been Big Read grant recipients in 2019 and 2020.

How was the Morongo Basins elected to participate in the NEABig Read?

Eligible organizations apply to Arts Midwest for NEA Big Read grants and the applications are reviewed by a panel of outside experts on the basis of artistic excellence and merit. Competitive applications demonstrate strong literary programming, experience in building effective local partnerships, reaching and engaging new and diverse audiences, working with educators, involving local and state public officials, and working with media. More information on the application and guidelines are available on Arts Midwest’s website.

Which organizations in our community are participating in the NEA Big Read?

Arts Connection’s 2020 Big Read partners include the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Copper Mountain Community College, Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology, the Institute of Inquiry, the Mojave Desert Land Trust, the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council, Spark Growth, Thought Theatre, Cholla Needles, and the San Bernardino County libraries of Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley. Z107.7fm is the official media sponsor of the NEA Big Read in the Morongo Basin. Additional sponsors include the California Welcome Center, Copper Mountain College Foundation, the Morongo Basin Conservation Association and the 29 Palms Rotary Club.

How are books selected for the NEA Big Read library?

Suggestions for new titles are collected from a variety of sources, including the public, NEA Big Read grantees, and past Big Read panelists. The National Endowment for the Arts narrows the list of suggestions based on criteria including diversity of genre, diversity and stature of authors, a focus on living authors and contemporary work, the universal appeal of themes, capacity to incite lively and deep discussion, and a focus on expanding the range of voices and stories currently represented in the NEA Big Read library.A committee of outside readers representing a range of voices (including librarians, students, teachers, writers, booksellers, and publishers) review the books and make the final recommendations.You can suggest a new NEA Big Read title at

What types of events will take place during the NEA Big Read?

Big Read programs will include panel discussions, art exhibitions, theatrical performances, traditional book discussions, workshops, poetry readings and K-6 and university programs. To ensure the health and safety of community members and participants, the majority of our 2020 Big Read programs will be hosted online.

When will the NEA Big Read in the Morongo Basin take place?

The 2020 Big Read will kick-off on September 12th and run through October 12th.

Where can I find more information about the NEA Big Read?

For more information, visit:

Visit for more information on the national NEA Big Read program. The website also features information about the NEA Big Read titles, including author biographies,discussion questions, and community stories from communities who have hosted Big Read programs.

Send me art news and opportunities!