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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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How the MacArthur Foundation finds its ‘geniuses’

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

On  Tuesday, Atlanta sculptor Elizabeth Turk was named as one of 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”

Turk, 48, will receive an award of $500,000, paid quarterly over five years, from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. There are no strings attached and no oversight from the foundation, which has made the grants for 30 years. Grantees aren’t even required to report how they spend the money.

We asked MacArthur Fellows director Daniel Socolow,  a part-time Atlantan, to tell us how it decides who gets the surprise grants.

Q: So, the folks who receive the grants have no idea the MacArthur Foundation has been considering them?

A: It’s one of the most amazing things that drops out of the sky on people who have no idea we’ve been looking at them. You get one call from me: I say, “Guess what, we’ve been looking at you. We think you’re terrific, we think the work you do is fantastic and important. You’re never gonna hear from me again, but you’re going to get a half-million dollars, and go for it.”

Q: What sort of responses do you get?

A: Well, the whole range, you can imagine. Disbelief to pure shock to screaming to giggling to almost fainting. Most people want to hang up because they can’t believe it’s real.

Q: What’s the process for finding these “geniuses?”

A: We’re looking for people who are really extraordinary, unusual, very original in whatever area they work. [The grants have] gone to everyone from farmers to astrophysicists. What we’re looking for as we search each year through hundreds and hundreds of confidential nominations … is people who are truly extraordinary. Who are really creative. Who we think have great possibilities and potential to do great things moving forward, not just now.

We’re betting on what they’re going to do for the future.

I invite hundreds and hundreds of people each year who’ve never been involved in this to suggest people. I then write to tens of thousands of other people about [those suggested], and it’s confidential. And I collect all the material written about and by the person, copies of their art if they’re artists, music if they’re musicians. I take these many, many dossiers to a very small committee of not surprisingly anonymous and confidential folks that are with me for a year, winnowing down from hundreds of hundreds to 20 or 25 [honorees] from across this broad spectrum of expertise.

Q: How many serve on the final selection committee?

A: About a dozen. Nominators and evaluators change every year. Selectors are on a rotating basis, [serving a] three year term. All these people are outside the foundation. The reason for all the anonymity and confidentiality is not to play games. We really believe when you can’t find a nominator, can’t find any of the players, you can’t influence the program. As a result the people who get this are truly deserving and haven’t gotten to us through influence

Q: It’s amazing that you don’t require that they justify, or even detail, what they do with the $500,000.

A: We believe that these people know far better than we what to do with this money. That they’re really creative people who need no oversight, nobody hanging on their shoulder.

Q: How do you let people know that they’ve won?

A: I called all 23 [of this year's winners] in three days. They were all wonderful. I called about 10 days before the announcement, and they can only tell one other person. We have to keep it very close, or we lose control.

Q: How does it feel to be bearer of such wonderful news?

A: It’s a little scary because you can get carried away and begin to believe you really are god. You gotta remember humility and recognize you’re just about to change each of these people’s lives. You’ve got to stay out of the picture here and let them enjoy it. I’ve been doing it for 14 years, and it’s extraordinary, there’s no job like it.

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