Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

MacArthur Foundation 'genius grants' for 2012 revealed

The MacArthur Foundation gave 23 people this year $500,000 each to pursue a creative vision. MacArthur 'genius grant' winners, who work in fields ranging from medicine and science to the arts and journalism, can spend the money any way they want.

By Carla K. JohnsonAssociated Press / October 2, 2012

Maurice Lim Miller, a social services innovator who designs projects that reward and track self-sufficiency among residents of low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, San Francisco and Boston, is seen at his home in Oakland, Calif. Miller is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

(AP Photo/Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Don Feria)



The MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" are given in a secrecy-shrouded process. Winners have no idea they've been nominated for the prestigious $500,000 awards until they get the call, and nominators must remain anonymous.

Skip to next paragraph

Mandolin player and composer Chris Thile ignored the incessant phone calls from the foundation at first, thinking they were campaign calls for the U.S. presidential election. Then he received an ominous message: "Don't tell anyone about this call."

His tour manager searched for the number online and told him, "It appears to be from something called the MacArthur Foundation."

"I think I must have turned white," Thile said.

RECOMMENDED: Five ways to identify child prodigies

The grants, paid over five years, give this year's 23 recipients freedom to pursue a creative vision. Winners, who work in fields ranging from medicine and science to the arts and journalism, don't have to report how they spend the money.

Thile, who played with Nickel Creek and is now touring with Punch Brothers, said he may use the grant to fund a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet.

Northwestern University historian Dylan C. Penningroth said he now can expand his search for court records of property owned by slaves in the pre-Civil War South.

"This grant will make it possible for me to think big, to be more ambitious about the time period I cover and the questions I'm trying to answer, like, what's the connection to the modern civil rights era?" said Penningroth.

For other winners — there have been 873 so far, including this year's recipients — the grants bring prestige, confirmation and, in some cases, moments of profound reflection about life and fate.

"It left me thinking about my childhood," said Dominican-American author Junot Diaz, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

"It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me," Diaz said, reflecting on his early years in New Jersey "struggling with poverty, struggling with English. ... I came from a community that was about as hard-working as you can get and yet no one saw or recognized in any way our contributions or our genius. ... I have to wonder, but for circumstances, how many other kids that I came up with are more worthy of this fellowship than me?"

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Editors' picks