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.
(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.
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.
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.