MacArthur Foundation reveals 2010 'genius grants'
Winners receive $500,000 grants to use as they wish.
Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 07:46 AM
GENIUS: David Simon (left), creator of "The Wire" and "Treme", shown here with actor Clark Johnson, was among those recognized by the MacArthur Foundation. (Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
David Simon, creator of the HBO television series "The Wire," is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" — news that left him with what he described as "a vague sense of guilt."
The $500,000 grants were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The money, paid quarterly over five years, comes with no strings, allowing winners unfettered freedom to pursue their creativity. (A complete list of winners is at the end of this story.)
Simon's guilt stemmed from already being amply funded in an industry that's "a little bit recession-proof," he said. Still, the award's prestige will go far with network executives. While critically acclaimed, Simon's dissection of urban problems in "The Wire" and more recently "Treme" hasn't yet scored Emmys or high Nielsen ratings.
"It makes it easier to go into the room with the network and argue against doing the usual thing in television," Simon said. His next pitch? The history of the CIA since World War II and a housing desegregation fight in Yonkers are two subjects inspiring him now. "Not all these things have the best possible commercial outlook," he said.
MacArthur winners don't need to tell anyone how they'll spend the grant money. There are no reporting requirements.
"We could spend it all on cake," joked theater director David Cromer, one of this year's recipients. Cromer, known for staging American classics like "Our Town," said he wasn't ready to discuss what he may attempt with the grant's support. But he has some non-cake ideas.
"It purchases you freedom," Cromer said. "I can do things now that aren't necessarily going to generate an income."
That's exactly what the foundation has in mind. Bob Gallucci, the foundation's president, called the grants "an investment in people who have already done extraordinary things." There have been 828 MacArthur Fellows, including this year's winners.
"We're hoping not only that they'll do extraordinary things in the future, but that this fellowship will make that somewhat more likely," Gallucci said.
Dormant projects get new life
Jason Moran, a jazz pianist and composer, said he was elated and that the grant would fuel many of the projects that have lain dormant in his mind.
"I have already begun making minor plans on band expeditions to Senegal to study Senegalese drumming, or bringing our music down to perform in rural parts of America, or to simply create new collaborations with artists in other fields, or begin a series of recordings made on the old format of Edison wax cylinders," he said. "It's all in play now."
None of the winners is from New Orleans, but the Big Easy exerts a strong pull on the 2010 grantees. Simon's newest HBO series "Treme" is about residents of post-Katrina New Orleans. Cromer recently revived Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," set in New Orleans, to great praise.
And Shannon Lee Dawdy, an anthropologist and archaeologist from the University of Chicago, has studied New Orleans since 1994. After Hurricane Katrina, she worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Louisiana to make sure recovery efforts respected the city's archaeological heritage.
She regrets she hasn't been able to save Holt Cemetery, a potter's field where homemade plot markers were washed away by the post-Katrina flooding.
"I would like to work with the local community to preserve living traditions and the site itself," Dawdy said, and the MacArthur grant may help. "It might mean that I'm able take things I've long wished to do, things in the 'wouldn't it be nice?' category, and make that actually happen magically."
Receiving word of the MacArthur was "like receiving a phone call from the Greek gods," Dawdy said, because "someone you can't see is pulling the strings of your fate."
Winners have no idea they've been nominated. Nominators are pledged to secrecy.
There's "nothing more fun" than informing the winners, Gallucci said. He broke the news to four grantees this year, he said, first making sure they weren't driving or holding a baby.
Subterfuge can be involved in the notification.
MacArthur winner Amir Abo-Shaeer, a public high school physics teacher in California, said he was expecting a call from a college student named Liz Brooks who was interested in his work when the foundation called to tell him about the grant.
There was no Liz Brooks. She was a creation of the foundation to get the busy teacher on the phone. "I am prepared to lie like a rug," admitted Gallucci, who notified Abo-Shaeer of the grant.
Abo-Shaeer, who left a job in industry to become a teacher, wants to train other educators about his innovative curriculum and the importance of recruiting and inspiring female students.
"Right now I teach full time. I can relieve my schedule to be a teacher trainer. If I have an idea that's exciting or interesting, I can try it," he said.
The MacArthurs have been nicknamed "genius grants," which can be problematic for winners.
Simon, the HBO producer, said his wife would like to thank the foundation for "five years of fresh material." The morning after she heard the news, Simon's wife, best-selling novelist Laura Lippman, told him, "Hey Genius, you forgot to take the trash out last night."
List of 2010 MacArthur Foundation grant recipients
The following 23 fellows each will receive $500,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation:
- Amir Abo-Shaeer, 38, public school teacher, Goleta, Calif. Inspiring and preparing public high school students for careers in science and mathematics through an innovative curriculum that integrates applied physics, engineering and robotics.
- Jessie Little Doe Baird, 46, language preservationist, Mashpee, Mass. Reviving a long-silent language and restoring to her Native American community a vital sense of its cultural heritage and to the nation a link to its complex past.
- Kelly Benoit-Bird, 34, marine biologist, Corvallis, Ore. Using sophisticated acoustic engineering technology to explore the previously invisible behavior of ocean creatures and address long-unanswered questions about the structure and behavior of food chains.
- Nicholas Benson, 46, stone carver, Newport, R.I. Preserving the legacy of a centuries-old artistic tradition and expanding the art of hand letter carving with the beauty and craftsmanship of his own designs.
- Drew Berry, 40, biomedical animator, Melbourne, Australia. Enhancing understanding biological processes and systems by synthesizing data from a variety of fields into scientifically accurate, aesthetically rich visualizations.
- Carlos D. Bustamante, 35, population geneticist, Stanford, Calif. Mining DNA sequence data to address fundamental questions about the mechanisms of evolution, the complex origins of human genetic diversity and patterns of population migration.
- Matthew Carter, 72, type designer, Cambridge, Mass. Crafting letterforms of unequaled elegance and precision for a range of applications and media that span the migration of text from the printed page to computer screens.
- David Cromer, 45, theater director, New York. Reinvigorating classic American plays with a spirit and urgency that eschews nostalgia and provides audiences with unexpectedly fresh and compelling theatrical experiences.
- John Dabiri, 30, biophysicist, Pasadena, Calif. Investigating the hydrodynamics of jellyfish propulsion, which has profound implications for understanding evolutionary adaptation and such related issues in fluid dynamics as blood flow in the human heart.
- Shannon Lee Dawdy, 43, anthropologist, Chicago. Combining archaeological scholarship with historical preservation to reveal the dynamics of intellectual and social life in New Orleans from its establishment as a French colony to the present day.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, 51, historian, Cambridge, Mass. Enriching understanding of colonial and early American interracial relations by disentangling the complicated history of two distinct founding families.
- Yiyun Li, 37, fiction writer, Davis, Calif. Dramatizing the myriad effects of late-20th-century China's sweeping social changes in a moving, yet understated, style of storytelling.
- Michal Lipson, 40, optical physicist, Ithaca, N.Y. Working at the intersection of fundamental photonics and nanofabrication engineering to design silicon-based photonics circuits that are paving the way for practical optical computing devices.
- Nergis Mavalvala, 42, quantum astrophysicist, Cambridge, Mass. Linking optics, condensed matter and quantum mechanics in research that enhances the ability to detect and quantify gravitational radiation.
- Jason Moran, 35, jazz pianist and composer, New York. Blending musical styles in genre-crossing performances that expand the boundaries of jazz expression.
- Carol Padden, 55, sign language linguist, La Jolla, Calif. Illuminating the unique structure and evolution of sign languages and the specific social implications of signed communication.
- Jorge Pardo, 47, installation artist, Los Angeles. Challenging the distinction between fine art and design, as well as the constraints of museum and gallery spaces, with visually seductive works at the intersection of painting, sculpture and architecture.
- Sebastian Ruth, 35, violist, violinist and music educator, Providence, R.I. Providing richly rewarding musical experiences and education for urban youth and their families while forging new roles beyond the concert hall for the 21st-century musician.
- Emmanuel Saez, 37, economist, Berkeley, Calif. Drawing on quantitative analyses, behavioral experiments and theoretical insights to enhance understanding of the relationship between income and tax policy.
- David Simon, 50, author, screenwriter and producer, Baltimore, Md. Crafting richly textured narratives that engage wide-ranging audiences and confront daunting challenges facing America's urban centers.
- Dawn Song, 35, computer security specialist, Berkeley, Calif. Exploring the deep interactions among software, hardware and networks to increase the stability of computer systems vulnerable to remote attack or interference.
- Marla Spivak, 55, entomologist, St. Paul, Minn. Protecting one of the world's most important pollinators — the honey bee — from decimation by disease while making important contributions to the understanding of bee biology.
- Elizabeth Turk, 48, sculptor, Atlanta. Transforming her signature medium of marble, a traditionally monumental and prone-to-fracture material, into intricate, seemingly weightless works of art.
Source: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
On the Web: MacArthur Foundation
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