When the news of Cécile McLorin Salvant’s nomination as a 2020 MacArthur Fellow was first announced yesterday, it elicited two reactions: elation and puzzlement. The elation came from the fact that the fellowship was richly deserved; over the past decade, Salvant has established herself as a world-class talent, not just through singing and composing but also through the distinctive aesthetic sensibilities she’s brought to both jazz and modern music in general. The puzzlement took the form of a question—hadn’t she just won an Artist Award from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as well? The answer was yes, she had, less than three weeks ago.
Between these two generous grants, Salvant will be receiving $900,000 for her continuing artistic efforts. The $625,000 MacArthur grant will be paid over five years in quarterly installments. Of the $275,000 in the Duke award, $25,000 must be set aside for retirement savings. The rest of that money as well as the entirety of the MacArthur sum is free and clear, no strings attached.
Salvant is no stranger to awards. Her career skyrocketed initially with her win in the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and she has since garnered two Grammys and a Glenn Gould Protege Prize, among others.
Here’s the rub, though: As no one in the jazz community needs to be reminded, 2020 has been a year unlike any other since the music went mainstream. Live performance opportunities have disappeared and every musician across the United States and the globe is struggling to stay solvent. In the context of a worldwide pandemic, the choice of two major charitable organizations to bestow their combined largesse on the same artist could be regarded as, in the parlance of public relations, a bad look.
This, again, is in no way meant to suggest that Salvant is somehow undeserving of such distinction, but rather to question the criteria within the MacArthur and Duke Foundations’ decision-making process. Should they have taken greater note of one another’s actions this year, when the careers of all creative artists are under even more threat than usual? Possibly.
However, one of the abiding virtues of these grants—and one reason why they’re so coveted—is that they come with few conditions. It remains to be seen how Salvant makes use of her new funding. She is of course under no obligation to do anything in particular with it other than supporting herself; she’s more than earned that right. All the same, we look forward to her next moves.