MacArthur Foundation Reveals 'Genius Grants'

David Simon, creator of the HBO series "The Wire" i

David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, said he felt guilty about winning the grant because he comes from an industry that is "a little bit recession-proof." AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
David Simon, creator of the HBO series "The Wire"

David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire, said he felt guilty about winning the grant because he comes from an industry that is "a little bit recession-proof."


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.

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.

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

"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.

He isn't getting much mileage out of the so-called "genius" award at home, though. Simon said his wife — best-selling novelist Laura Lippman — would like to thank the foundation for "five years of fresh material." The morning after she heard the news, she told him, "Hey Genius — you forgot to take the trash out last night."

Spending The Winnings

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.

2011 Winners Of The 5-Year, $500,000 Grants

  • 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

"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 — which also is a contributor to NPR — 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.

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."

Links To New Orleans

None of the winners is from New Orleans, but the Big Easy exerts a strong pull on the new 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 that 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."

Secrecy And Subterfuge

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.

Simon, the HBO producer — and a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, said when he first got the call from the foundation, he was afraid he had run over someone's dog.

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.

'A Great Privilege'

Fellow winner Annette Gordon-Reed — who won a Pulitzer for her exploration of the controversial relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings — told NPR's Ari Shapiro Tuesday morning that her plans for the grant money include doing "something very, very nice" with her family.

"Maybe buy myself an iPod or something," she joked from her New York home, before adding that she plans to save the money to do research and travel for a big project: "a biography of Jefferson to start from soup to nuts, go back from the very beginning and redo it. ... That's what I've always wanted to do, and I think the Hemings story was sort of preparation for the bigger project."

Gordon-Reed said writing about history just comes naturally to her.

"It started as a fascination as a child with Jefferson and [his] Monticello [estate] and slavery, and it developed into something that I wanted to write about," she said.

"I've always loved history ... and I'm sort of doing what I've always wanted to do — which is a great privilege that you have, when you can work on things that have mattered to you for a very, very long time."

She's currently working on another book about the Hemings family.

Like Abo-Shaeer, Gordon-Reed said she also got a surprise phone call from the MacArthur Foundation informing her of the win.

"Someone made an arrangement to have me take a telephone call at a particular time," she said, "and so I decided to stay home that morning to take the call, and I was watching an episode of House and the phone rang — and it wasn't the person I was expecting. ... I was stunned."

With reporting from NPR's Neda Ulaby and material from The Associated Press.



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