How MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowships Work

Choreographer Twyla Tharp, seen here after receiving the I.A.L. Diamond Award for Achievement for the Arts at Columbia University in 2010, received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1992.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp, seen here after receiving the I.A.L. Diamond Award for Achievement for the Arts at Columbia University in 2010, received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1992.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

You may not have heard of the MacArthur Fellowships, although the name MacArthur "Genius" Grants may ring a bell. The MacArthur Fellowships were created in 1981 through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The $500,000 grants are given annually to 20 to 30 Americans who are deemed to be intelligent, creative, driven and doing important work. While the money, meted out over a five-year period, is a gift -- there are no reporting requirements or documentation necessary -- the hope is that the grants will relieve any financial constraints the individuals have, allowing them to continue to pursue their fields of study and innovation. The fellowships aren't rewards for past achievements, then, but instead are intended to be investments in the future -- everyone's future [source: MacArthur Foundation].

The MacArthur Foundation was founded by John MacArthur in 1970. MacArthur was a successful businessman, namely in insurance; at the time of his death, he was sole owner of Chicago's Bankers Life & Casualty Company, then the nation's largest privately-held life insurance company, and was one of the three richest men in America. Catherine, his second wife, held various roles in her husband's businesses [sources: MacArthur Foundation, MacArthur Foundation]. The foundation began operating after MacArthur's death in 1978. Dedicated to supporting people and institutions who want to create a better, more peaceful world, it doles out substantial amounts of cash and loans through four programs, one of which is the Fellows Program [source: MacArthur Foundation].

It was MacArthur's son, J. Roderick MacArthur, who came up with the idea for the fellowships after listening to a member of the foundation's board of directors discussing an article by a Dr. George Burch. In the article, Burch said creative people interested in research and innovation should be given money to live on so they're free to sit around and think. Intrigued by this notion, J. Roderick created the MacArthur Fellows Program. Over time, the awards were dubbed "genius grants," but the foundation doesn't like this nickname because of its emphasis on intellect. While smarts are certainly important, recipients possess many other qualities, such as persistence and risk-taking [source: MacArthur Foundation].

How Can I Snag A Fellowship?

When Stephen Wolfram received a MacArthur grant in 1981, he was the youngest to do so.
When Stephen Wolfram received a MacArthur grant in 1981, he was the youngest to do so.
Courtesy Wolfram Research

If a no-strings-attached gift of $500,000 sounds appealing, you may wish to nominate yourself for a MacArthur Fellowship. Except you can't. Nor can your parents or friends. The selection of MacArthur Fellows is an intense, secretive process that begins when the Foundation pulls together an anonymous committee of more than 100 experts, carefully chosen for their combined variety of experience and expertise. Committee members are then set loose to find nominees. Nominees must be "the most creative people they know within their field and beyond," according to the Foundation. They also must be U.S. residents or citizens [source: MacArthur Foundation].

Next, the nominations are presented to an independent Selection Committee. The committee is comprised of roughly 12 leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities, plus bigwigs in the for-profit and nonprofit arenas. Each nomination consists of a nomination letter, evaluations from other experts and some of the nominee's original works. The 20 to 30 fellows are then selected, with the awards doled out in the fall, usually September [source: MacArthur Foundation].

While there are few restrictions on who may receive a fellowship, trends have emerged over time. Nearly all recipients are liberal, for example, and they tend to live on the East or West Coast, namely Manhattan and San Francisco. Working in academia or the arts is a definite plus, too. Lots of fellows are professors, often employed at Harvard or the University of California, Berkeley, and many are writers, choreographers, directors, musicians and artists. Finally, being a bit of a contrarian and quirky appears to help, too [source: Plotz]. Doesn't sound like you? That's OK. Most MacArthur Fellows toil in relative obscurity anyway.

Famous MacArthur Fellows

Nearly 900 MacArthur Fellows have been named in the program's first 31 years [source: Lee]. Yet many of the fellows, if not most, are largely unknown to most Americans. Here are a few whose names you might recognize:

  • Twyla Tharp. Tharp, a dancer and choreographer, has choreographed more than 135 dances and five Hollywood movies, plus directed and choreographed four Broadway shows. The founder of Twyla Tharp Dance, her dances are known for their combination of creativity and precision, and for incorporating different forms of movement [source: Twyla Tharp].
  • Marian Wright Edelman. This African-American lawyer, civil rights activist and children's advocate is perhaps best known as the founder of the Washington Research Project, which became the Children's Defense Fund [source: Information Please].
  • Paul Ehrlich. A Stanford educator and best-selling author, Ehrlich first made news in 1968 after penning "The Population Bomb,"which discussed the world's burgeoning population and its effect on resources and the environment [source: Eco Speakers].
  • Susan Sontag. Sontag, a prolific author and essayist, was also known as a tireless human rights activist [source: Susan Sontag].

Author's Note

I like the idea of the MacArthur Fellowships. And while I applaud the fact that recipients aren't required to report what they did during the years they received the dough, it would be interesting to hear how the cash positively impacted the lives of these smarty pants -- and how hopefully, in turn, their resulting work benefited the rest of the world.

Related Articles


  • Eco Speakers. "Paul Ehrlich." (Aug. 30, 2012)
  • Famous Why. "List of MacArthur Fellows." (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • Information Please. "Marian Wright Edelman." (Aug. 30, 2012)
  • Lee, Felicia. "MacArthur Foundation Selects 22 'Geniuses'." The New York Times. Sept. 20, 2011. (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • MacArthur Foundation. "About John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur." (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • MacArthur Foundation. "About Us." (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • MacArthur Foundation. "MacArthur Fellows Program Frequently Asked Questions." September 2010. (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • MacArthur Foundation. "MacArthur Fellows Strategy." (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • Plotz, David. "The MacArthur Geniuses." Slate. July 7, 2000. (Aug. 29, 2012)
  • Susan Sontag. "Susan Sontag." (Aug. 30, 2012)
  • Twyla Tharp. "Bio." (Aug. 30, 2012)