It begins with a phone call. From out of nowhere.
That’s how a MacArthur Fellow learns they have just won $US500,000 to spend, however they want.
This scene has played out each year since 1981, when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognised 21 individuals for their creative work and handed them hundreds of thousands of dollars to be allocated over a five-year period.
These people are independent, creative, and demonstrate an exceptional talent in their field. They are also people whom the foundation thinks will benefit from the money they are given.
The grant is “not a reward for past accomplishments, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential,” according to the foundation.
On Wednesday, a new group of fellows will be announced. This year the recipients will receive “genius grants” of $US625,000.
You don’t have to be a “genius” to receive an award. This term is only used by journalists, according to Cecilia Conrad, the director of the MacArthur Fellow Program who recently described the Fellowship in an article for The Washington Post, titled “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants.'”
Recipients are chosen from nearly every discipline — there are agriculturalists, economists, historians, entomologists, marine biologists, sculptors, and theatre directors.
“We admire prodigies and great athletes, but those are not the attributes we are seeking when we make the award,” Conrad writes. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
You can read Conrad’s full post here or read our brief overview of the MacArthur Fellowship below:
How does the selection process work?
You cannot apply to be a MacArthur Fellow. Recipients are nominated by the organisation’s own “talent scouts,” who are generally leaders in their fields. The nominators change each year. A selection committee composed of 12 anonymous experts makes the final decision. The committee looks at a file of the nominee’s work, like books, videos, or art installations, and combines this with recommendations from experts to identify the most outstanding candidates.
Do the Fellows know they have been nominated?
No. The winners don’t know about their nomination until a few days before the official announcement when they receive a phone call. Anthropologist Shannon Dawday, who received a fellowship in 2010, described that moment as like “receiving a phone call from the Greek gods.”
What do the Fellows get?
This year the MacArthur fellows will receive $US625,000 paid over five years. In past years the stipend has been $US500,000.
Who are the winners?
The winners come from all different fields, including science, journalism, mathematics, music, and art. According to Conrad, “from 2001 to 2012, 36 per cent of the MacArthur fellows came from the arts and humanities, 36 per cent from science or social science, and 26 per cent worked on social problems such as homelessness, food security, and health care.”
Is there an age limit?
No. Last year the winners ranged in age from 33 to 66.
How many people receive the fellowship?
There are typically between 20 to 25 winners. There were 23 recipients in 2012 and 22 the year before that.
Who won last year?
Here is a list of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows. The winners included a stringed-instrument bow maker who is trying to improve the design and quality of violin, viola, and cello bows, a marine ecologist who is studying dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and a fiction writer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And the fellows can spend the money any way they want?
Yes. There are no restrictions on how recipients can spend the money. However, the idea is to provide seed money so this group of creative people can do the work they have always dreamed of doing without financial constraints.
The MacArthur website explains: “We believe that highly motivated, self-directed, and talented people are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources. By adopting a ‘no strings attached’ policy, we provide the maximum freedom for the recipients to follow their creative vision, whether it is moving forward with their current activities, expanding the scope of their work, or embarking in entirely new directions.”
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