What Is The Macarthur Foundation Doing?

Michael Giberson

Speaking of Daniel Drezner, he has a post up about the MacArthur Foundation Fellows program. Drezner discusses a story in Crain’s Chicago Business by Marc Sheffler that examines the relative lack of success of grants to writers in leading to new significant works. Tyler Cowen also comments.

Assuming it is true that, as Sheffler’s story says, the MF grants don’t really foster the production of new great literary works, what are we to make of the Foundation’s claim that the “program works fantastically”?

In several respects, the grants have worked fantastically. First, the program works as PR for the Foundation, which gets associated with genius and artistic merit. My guess is that the Foundation’s reputation is more associated with the existing work of the recipients at the time of the initial grant, and not so affected by the future work done during or after the term of the fellowship.

After all, the Foundation doesn’t assert any creative control over the recipients, so if a Fellow’s next book is lousy it isn’t the Foundation’s fault. If MacArthur did exercise explicit post-award control over the Fellows, then the Foundation’s reputation would be more closely associated with the (risky, unknown) quality of the Fellow’s new work.

On the other hand, if the Foundation chose someone who had only produced mediocre work, then clearly the Foundation’s reputation would suffer. They maximize their reputation by choosing folks with existing well-regarded books, not by gambling on the value of future works.

Second, the programs do work culturally by signaling what the Foundation finds to be of value. Clearly, capitalism directly rewards many of the creative contributors to society, but by spending large sums to reward writers and artists (among others), the Foundation is saying to society, “These creative contributions, too, are valued.”

Now, it isn’t clear the society undervalues novelists in general. The supply of fiction these days clearly exceeds the demand, ask any publisher about their inbox, and many people labor away at their keyboards and dream. But in the cultural sphere, willingness to put this kind of money into the hand of artists serves as a signal of value. And, whether you agree or disagree as to whether the foundation needs to encourage this sort of behavior, I’m inclined to think “Their money, their choice.”

Third, by giving fellowships both to relatively well-known authors and to relatively unknown scientists and social entrepreneurs, the program transfers some of the “superstar” status associated with successful artists to the more pedestrian world of science. It is a way of saying, “Hey, these folks are doing cool stuff, too.” MacArthur takes a bundle of cash made in insurance and property investments, and turns it into some solid high-culture street cred.

So long as you judge the Fellows program as a PR effort to enhance the reputation of MacArthur and, perhaps, as a vote in favor of Culture-with-a-capital-C in a culture that more readily funds others kinds of enterprise, then the program seems a success.

For more blog commentary, try this Technorati search.

Moorishgirl writes, “Must be nice to work for somebody who doesn’t do performance reviews.”

Actually, I find I usually do better work when faced with the prospect of eventual adult supervision, but for $500 thousand from the MacArthur folks, I’d be willing to risk sputtering to a halt.


5 thoughts on “What Is The Macarthur Foundation Doing?

  1. The only McArhtur foundation recepient’s work that I know of is John Sayles, and he does most of his work in film.

  2. And what prize system does do more than consecrate the conventional wisdom? And too late. The thing about young genius is that it is *NOT* going to be conventional places doing conventional things.

    Einstein was in Zurich, which was provincial, instead of a German university, because he could not stand the German system. He was working as a patent clerk because he head no entre into the closed academic world of the time. He was awarded one Nobel prize, for one of his his less important 1905 papers, not the four he easily deserved, and that one in 1921, after General Relativity had been published and established by the 1919 eclipse observations.

  3. Interesting analysis of the very quirky M F folks.I had considered writing about the very same question.Are they cool.I doubt it.
    I am an written about recognised digital-photo artist on Pixiport.com ,which is Helyn Davenports own site,launched for the love and promotion of photography,with many extreemly talented,world class photo artists.I feel strongly that Helyn deserves an award from these folks,as she works day and night to encourage talented photographers to succede.Helyn IS… a genius,with 30 years of recognition,but i sometimes wonder about this MF outfit,as i recently sent them an inquirey for a cartoonist grant( Iknow, it was brash of me)because i recently read on a insider(AWN) cartoon publication that some dude from NY got this grant for some kind of obscure concept(‘a jew doing cartoons in new york’??) that cartoonists have NEVER HEARD about.AND, this undeserving grant dude,has NEVER been heard from since-as he did nothing note-worthy with this grant money! the article went on to say that this guy was NOT…deserving and what the hell-why did he get a 500 grand grant ? the article mentioned many deserving artists who had never seen such money-grants. GET-THIS…. I reminded the MF folks ,in my letter of application( they did allow me to apply)that MY concept was beginning to get recognised by many areas of expertise. I also reminded them about their ‘mission statment’ about their desire… to award artists-writers with ‘educational’ aspects regarding kids-their project.MY concept is educational and entertaining.it can go directly into ANIMATION!I can unevoquivically proove this!
    well duhhh… these MF dudes wrote back and rejected my very educational project of ‘gemstone cartoons’,which are of earth science interests,regarding the characters and didn’t blink an eye!
    Now , it appears my concept ,as Dale Mc Farlane AKA “DAWK” , which can be seen at http://www.sito.org and is a very friendly artist for the starving-site, is now taking-off. I am an honered artist at helyn Davenports site,as she KNOWS the potiential of my art-concepts,and is
    avidly promoting me. My question to the Mac Aurthur folks is; If your ‘scouts’ are so good at finding talent-deserving,then why are you ignoring such obvious folks? Do you need more ‘input-suggestions’?If my concept becomes famous,then what the hell do I need one of their grants -for?>>>Nuttin-absolutly-nuttin.
    Consider THIS as suggestion;when someone( a starving artist) like me ‘begs’ for a grant that can help inspire-educate people-kids of all ages in the field of natural earth sciences,through gemstone cartoons,then what-the-hell-why are you giving it away to the opposite!!??
    Heres proof that my concept can ‘fly’: check out a HUGE european educational project as ‘concept cartoons’ which has millions involved from grants that use CARTOONS to teach science -learning,via simple cartoons,with questions and answers.
    Mac Aurthur foundation: YOU-SUCK!!!!

  4. Interesting analysis of the very quirky M F folks.I had considered writing about the very same question.Are they cool.I doubt it.
    I am an written about recognised digital-photo artist on Pixiport.com ,which is Helyn Davenports own site,launched for the love and promotion of photography,with many extreemly talented,world class photo artists.I feel strongly that Helyn deserves an award from these folks,as she works day and night to encourage talented photographers to succede.Helyn IS… a genius,with 30 years of recognition,but i sometimes wonder about this MF outfit,as i recently sent them an inquirey for a cartoonist grant( Iknow, it was brash of me)because i recently read on a insider(AWN) cartoon publication that some dude from NY got this grant for some kind of obscure concept(‘a jew doing cartoons in new york’??) that cartoonists have NEVER HEARD about.AND, this undeserving grant dude,has NEVER been heard from since-as he did nothing note-worthy with this grant money! the article went on to say that this guy was NOT…deserving and what the hell-why did he get a 500 grand grant ? the article mentioned many deserving artists who had never seen such money-grants. GET-THIS…. I reminded the MF folks ,in my letter of application( they did allow me to apply)that MY concept was beginning to get recognised by many areas of expertise. I also reminded them about their ‘mission statment’ about their desire… to award artists-writers with ‘educational’ aspects regarding kids-their project.MY concept is educational and entertaining.it can go directly into ANIMATION!I can unevoquivically proove this!
    well duhhh… these MF dudes wrote back and rejected my very educational project of ‘gemstone cartoons’,which are of earth science interests,regarding the characters and didn’t blink an eye!
    Now , it appears my concept ,as Dale Mc Farlane AKA “DAWK” , which can be seen at http://www.sito.org and is a very friendly artist for the starving-site, is now taking-off. I am an honered artist at helyn Davenports site,as she KNOWS the potiential of my art-concepts,and is
    avidly promoting me. My question to the Mac Aurthur folks is; If your ‘scouts’ are so good at finding talent-deserving,then why are you ignoring such obvious folks? Do you need more ‘input-suggestions’?If my concept becomes famous,then what the hell do I need one of their grants -for?>>>Nuttin-absolutly-nuttin.
    Consider THIS as suggestion;when someone( a starving artist) like me ‘begs’ for a grant that can help inspire-educate people-kids of all ages in the field of natural earth sciences,through gemstone cartoons,then what-the-hell-why are you giving it away to the opposite!!??
    Heres proof that my concept can ‘fly’: check out a HUGE european educational project as ‘concept cartoons’ which has millions involved from grants that use CARTOONS to teach science -learning,via simple cartoons,with questions and answers.
    Mac Aurthur foundation: YOU-SUCK!!!!

  5. Interesting analysis of the very quirky M F folks.I had considered writing about the very same question.Are they cool.I doubt it.
    I am an written about recognised digital-photo artist on Pixiport.com ,which is Helyn Davenports own site,launched for the love and promotion of photography,with many extreemly talented,world class photo artists.I feel strongly that Helyn deserves an award from these folks,as she works day and night to encourage talented photographers to succede.Helyn IS… a genius,with 30 years of recognition,but i sometimes wonder about this MF outfit,as i recently sent them an inquirey for a cartoonist grant( Iknow, it was brash of me)because i recently read on a insider(AWN) cartoon publication that some dude from NY got this grant for some kind of obscure concept(‘a jew doing cartoons in new york’??) that cartoonists have NEVER HEARD about.AND, this undeserving grant dude,has NEVER been heard from since-as he did nothing note-worthy with this grant money! the article went on to say that this guy was NOT…deserving and what the hell-why did he get a 500 grand grant ? the article mentioned many deserving artists who had never seen such money-grants. GET-THIS…. I reminded the MF folks ,in my letter of application( they did allow me to apply)that MY concept was beginning to get recognised by many areas of expertise. I also reminded them about their ‘mission statment’ about their desire… to award artists-writers with ‘educational’ aspects regarding kids-their project.MY concept is educational and entertaining.it can go directly into ANIMATION!I can unevoquivically proove this!
    well duhhh… these MF dudes wrote back and rejected my very educational project of ‘gemstone cartoons’,which are of earth science interests,regarding the characters and didn’t blink an eye!
    Now , it appears my concept ,as Dale Mc Farlane AKA “DAWK” , which can be seen at http://www.sito.org and is a very friendly artist for the starving-site, is now taking-off. I am an honered artist at helyn Davenports site,as she KNOWS the potiential of my art-concepts,and is
    avidly promoting me. My question to the Mac Aurthur folks is; If your ‘scouts’ are so good at finding talent-deserving,then why are you ignoring such obvious folks? Do you need more ‘input-suggestions’?If my concept becomes famous,then what the hell do I need one of their grants -for?>>>Nuttin-absolutly-nuttin.
    Consider THIS as suggestion;when someone( a starving artist) like me ‘begs’ for a grant that can help inspire-educate people-kids of all ages in the field of natural earth sciences,through gemstone cartoons,then what-the-hell-why are you giving it away to the opposite!!??
    Heres proof that my concept can ‘fly’: check out a HUGE european educational project as ‘concept cartoons’ which has millions involved from grants that use CARTOONS to teach science -learning,via simple cartoons,with questions and answers.
    Mac Aurthur foundation: YOU-SUCK!!!!

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