24 receive 'genius grants' from MacArthur Foundation
This year, there are 24 MacArthur fellows and recipients of the so-called genius grants. One is a director who has taken opera from the concert hall to the streets of Los Angeles. Another is an organizer who helped put a human face on the plight of young undocumented immigrants.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is based on Chicago. Last Wednesday it announced the 24 fellows who will each receive $625,000 over five years. They can spend it any way they choose. The recipients work in a variety of fields ranging from computer science to theater. And from immunology to photography.
The foundation has awarded the fellowships annually since 1981. The fellowships are intended for people who show "exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future." Previous winners include "Hamilton" playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
There is no application process. Instead, an anonymous pool of nominators brings potential fellows to the foundation's attention. Those selected learn they've been chosen shortly before the awards are announced.
For Yuval Sharon, the news that he had been selected was "an enormous shock and honor." He is an opera director and producer. When the foundation called, he assumed they were seeking a referral for someone else who'd been nominated.
"I'm totally amazed," said Sharon, 37. He is the founder and artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based production company. It produces operas in nontraditional spaces and formats.
A 2015 production transported audience members and performers to various locations in Los Angeles via limousines. Singers and musicians performed along the way and at each stop.
His next work is an adaptation of the radio program "War of the Worlds." It will utilize decommissioned World War II sirens to broadcast the performance occurring inside the theater onto the streets. The sounds of performers stationed outdoors will then be transmitted back into the concert hall.
Sharon said he comes across many people who don't think opera is for them, but he hopes hearing about these kinds of "audacious experiments" will peak their interest.
Cristina Jimenez Moreta is another fellow. She is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, a national network of groups led by immigrant youth.
Moreta, 33, and her parents came to the U.S. illegally from Ecuador when she was a child. At 19, she revealed her undocumented status publicly. It was a move that put her and her family at risk of deportation, but also placed her at the forefront of a movement to change the way immigrants are perceived.
She was instrumental in pressing for the 2012 adoption of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the now-endangered executive order that allowed thousands of undocumented young people to live without fear of deportation.
Moreta said the fellowship is recognition of the resilience shown by her parents and other immigrants who "had the courage to stand up and say 'we are here, this is our home and we are fighting.'"
The first people she told were her parents, who were fearful when she started organizing but now join her in marches and to pass petitions.
"They're very proud," she said.
Also selected was Dawoud Bey, a photographer and educator from Chicago whose portraits often feature people from marginalized communities. For "The Birmingham Project," he commemorated the 1963 bombing at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed six children, with a series of portraits of Birmingham residents who were the age of each of the children killed and the age they would be if they had lived.
Others announced Wednesday were writer and cultural critic Viet Thanh Nguyen. His novel, "The Sympathizer," is about a communist double agent and it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Also a winner is Derek Peterson, a historian of East Africa and professor at the University of Michigan.