In a society where the government is more than willing to give hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations that seem to do little more than produce more wealth for the wealthy, it’s hard imagine anyone giving out huge sums of money to artists, writers, and activists. Well, someone still does, thankfully. The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a name that may be familiar to regular NPR listeners (“commited to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world”) has announced its 2009 fellows, a truly amazing list of men and women who take photgraphs of humanitarian crises, analyze cycles of poverty in third world countries, and make films about the Middle East, among other things. Each of this year’s twenty-four fellows will receive a no-strings-attached sum of $500,000 (yes, five hundred thousand dollars) to continue to pursue their work. No rules, no requirements to report in, no specific parameters for how the money has to be spent (one of the criteria for selection is that the winner has shown a consistent ability to produce work and stay active in their respective field, so there’s not much chance of someone running off and buying a Ferrari with the money).
Another amazing aspect of the the MacArthur fellowships is that winners don’t even know they’ve been nominated until they get a phone call telling them that they’ve won. The Foundation doesn’t accept applications or unsolicited nominations, and winners are selected by an anonymous board of about 100 judges.
You can see the full list of winners here. I’ve also attached a video of fellowship recipient Camille Utterback, a very cool digital artist who makes interactive display software.
Interestingly, it appears John D. MacArthur (1897-1978) was at one time one of the three wealthiest men in America, owner of several (gasp!) insurance companies and a hell of a lot of real estate. I don’t know how involved he was in the creation of the Foundation, but it’s great to know that such huge amounts of wealth can ultimately be put to excellent use.