Foundation awards new MacArthur ‘genius grants’

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins standing, with arms folded (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is winning accolades for his provocative, thoughtful dramas. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Would you recognize a genius if you met one?

Each year, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognizes a number of them. The foundation awards grants to people in various disciplines who it believes meet the dictionary definition: “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.”

On September 22, the foundation announced this year’s 23 MacArthur fellows — recipients of its “genius grants” — awarding each honoree a sum of $625,000 spread out over five years, without any requirements. More than 900 people have received the grants since 1981.

Among the 2016 honorees are playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins, who explores themes of identity, family, race and social class; author Gene Luen Yang, who writes primarily for young adults; and poet Claudia Rankine, best known for her book-length tapestry of poems, prose and images about racism Citizen: An American Lyric.

The winners were brought to the foundation’s attention by an anonymous pool of nominators. They do not apply for the money and are not informed they’ve been chosen until shortly before the awards are announced. The idea behind the grants is to give people of exceptional creativity the flexibility to further pursue their ideas and projects.

Video artist Mary Reid Kelley in front of mirror, painting her face in black and white (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Video artist Mary Reid Kelley transforms herself into a character for a production. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Jacob-Jenkins, 31, has created two works (Appropriate and Octoroon) that tied for the 2014 Obie Award for best new American play, and his satirical drama Gloria was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Yang, 43, first won acclaim for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, which in 2006 became the first novel of its kind to receive a National Book Award nomination.

In an email to the Associated Press, Yang said he hopes the grant money will enable him to have a private work space: “Practically speaking, I haven’t had a studio for a while now. For the past few years, I’ve been working at local cafés and from a corner in my bedroom.”

The foundation also awarded genius grants to writers Maggie Nelson and Sarah Stillman, composer Julia Wolfe, theater artist and educator Anne Basting and geobiologist Victoria Orphan.

Basting uses storytelling and creative expression to improve the lives of elderly people with dementia, stressing the possibilities as well as the challenges of aging.

Orphan studies how microbes interact with their environments and affect climate.

Two women in front of open water tanks, examining water sample in glass beaker (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Geobiologist Victoria Orphan examines micro-organisms in an open-air laboratory in California. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Others chosen include art historian Kellie Jones, who focuses on neglected black artists; biologist Manu Prakash, who has built a $1 microscope now used in 130 countries to help identify infectious diseases; linguist Daryl Baldwin, who’s trying to revive the intellectual heritage of Miami, or Myaamia, Indians; and video artist Mary Reid Kelley, whose images explore the condition of women throughout history.

Financial service innovator José A. Quiñonez, human rights attorney Ahilan Arulanantham, microbiologist Dianne Newman, bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, computer scientists Subhash Khot and Bill Thies, synthetic chemist Jin-Quan Yu, sculptor Vincent Fecteau, cultural historian Josh Kun, author Lauren Redniss and jewelry maker and sculptor Joyce J. Scott round off the list of grantees.

ShareAmerica staff writer Lauren Monsen contributed to this report.