As this issue went to press, news of this year’s MacArthur Fellowships were announced to the usual fanfare. In an annual rite that recalls Willy Wonka as much as the Nobel, over 20 visionaries from a variety of fields each received a grant of $500,000, given in quarterly installments over five years. The premise of the MacArthur “genius” grant is pretty simple. Scientists, activists, artists and other visionaries who have doggedly persevered in their chosen field are given a large sum of money with no strings attached. It’s like a lab project of sorts. This year’s winners included two prominent creative musicians-Regina Carter and John Zorn-each having little in common aside from a lifelong association with jazz.
The MacArthur Foundation is proud of its selection process, which they contend is insulated from lobbying or cronyism. In addition, the Foundation makes it clear that the “genius” tag is not one they endorse. “We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess,” their Web site states. “The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”