When investigative reporter James Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, received the call from the president of the MacArthur Foundation announcing that he was a recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation grant, he had an idea of what was coming. (The foundation had contacted his boss earlier, for one thing.) When the foundation president asked Mitchell if he knew why they were calling, the journalist answered, “Maybe a big check?”
That big check, in 2009, was $500,000, a stipend to be dispersed quarterly over the next five years – no strings attached. (The amount has gone up: this year’s award was $625,000.) According to a statement on its website, The MacArthur Foundation awards the generous grants annually to support creative people and institutions who are “committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world,” and past recipients include artists, scientists, poets and mathematicians. Between 20 and 25 recipients are selected each year, since 1981, and a public announcement is made in early fall.
Although the grants have been dubbed “genius” grants by journalists, the foundation doesn’t use the term, “because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual process,” according to the website’s mission statement. “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 synthetize disparate ideas and approaches.”
Mitchell was surprised that receiving the “big check” didn’t require filing reports or checking in. In fact, the foundation believes the recipients can decide how they want to use the funds. Their “no-strings attached policy” allows recipients to expand on work they’re already doing, or even moving into a different direction altogether. Recipients are not required to account for how they spend their money, nor do they have to report back.
For Mitchell, an investigative reporter whose work looking into cold cases from the civil rights era have led to the prosecution and conviction of white supremacist murderers over the span of his career, the MacArthur grant meant not only paying off debt, but also finishing up projects. He told the New York Times in 2009 that the grant would allow him to take time off to finish up a book he was writing about the civil rights area cases he pursued. He said he would also try to get to the bottom of the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who had set out to register black voters in Mississippi, a case that became the basis for the film “Mississippi Burning.” Although he was unable to finish up that investigation, citing the death of suspects and witnesses, he told IBTimes that he was turning in the manuscript for his memoir, “Race Against Time,” in 2015. “I wouldn’t have gotten this book deal” he said, if it hadn’t been for the media exposure he received -- including an appearance on “The Colbert Report” -- thanks to the grant.
The late poet Amy Clampitt, who received the MacArthur grant in 1992, used her award to buy her first house at age 72, according to an NPR report. The grant proved to be a gift that kept giving to other poets after her death. Although Clampitt was diagnosed the following year with ovarian cancer and died in 1994, her husband Harold Korn created a fund that, since 2003, has helped up-and-coming poets by offering six-to 12-month tuition-free residencies at the Clampitt home in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In 1996, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith received the MacArthur grant for having “created a new form of theater – a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, and intimate reverie.” Her two plays "Fires In The Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” dramatized and reflected upon real events, often highlighting societal fault lines of race and class. “Fires”chronicled the viewpoints of both Jewish and African American communities in the Crown Heights crisis in Brooklyn in 1991, and “Twilight” dramatized the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and verdict. Deavere Smith based “Twilight” on interviews she did with witnesses and key players, playing their roles in a tour-de-force performance that was nominated for a 1994 Tony Award.
“When I got the MacArthur the late Susan Sontag called me up to congratulate me,” Deavere Smith told IBTimes in an email. “She added, ‘Don't take your friends out to dinner, it's really not all that much money.’ (It was less than what recipients win now, but it did seem to me like a handsome sum. ) She [also] added ‘What it really means is that you had a lot of people pulling for you...’ That remark was very useful at that time in my career. It filled me with appreciation and it was also a boost of belief in my own work.”
Deavere Smith continues to perform on the stage and on television, and she is currently the artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress, an independent educational, public policy research and advocacy organization. She has gone on to receive numerous other accolades, including the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.
Carl Haber, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, received the MacArthur Grant in 2013, in part for his breakthrough technology known as the IRENE Project, which "reads" old audio recordings and converts them into digital files.
He and his team work to retrieve sound recordings from rare and damaged old phonograph records using image processing, which doesn’t further damaging the delicate records. “We take a picture of a phonograph record … and mathematically digest the information in it and extract in detail the motion of the groove and calculate what sound would be played if it were played with a needle,“ he said in an NPR interview . His technique was used, famously, to restore the sound of Alexander Graham Bell saying his name in 1885. With the grant, his IRENE project can go forward.
“The MacArthur fellowship will give us the possibility to work outside the confines of these very specific targeted projects,” he said,” to do proof of principle on new and interesting recordings that may be rather remote, from all over the world.”
Though Haber’s use of the grant money is both logical and admirable, there are (so far) no limits to what a recipient does or doesn’t do with the money. One wonders what public opinion would be, however, if a recipient did what poet Anne Sexton did with a Bunting Fellowship she received from Harvard. According to John Hennessy, who was selected for a Clampitt residency in 2007, “[S]he supposedly put a pool in.”