This Is What Genius Looks Like

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation selects between 20 and 30 individuals as MacArthur Fellows, commonly referred to as Genius Grant winners.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

The Foundation does not require or expect specific products or reports from MacArthur Fellows and does not evaluate recipients’ creativity during the term of the fellowship. The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award in support of people, not projects. Each fellowship comes with a stipend of $625,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.

There are three criteria for selection of Fellows:

  1. Exceptional creativity
  2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
  3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Since 1981, 1,014 MacArthur Fellows have been named from across numerous fields of human endeavor. Many Fellows work across multiple disciplines or move their work from one field to another over time.

I first became familiar with the program when I was selected as a recipient (oops, there I go fantasizing again) when a juggler and performance artist, Michael Moschen, was awarded a grant in 1990. Since then, I usually try to check in to see who the latest award winners are.

This year’s winners were just announced this week, and many of the recipients I found quite inspiring. I plan to profile a few of them in some upcoming blog posts, and I thought I’d start with Vijay Gupta, a violinist and social justice advocate.

Here is a brief bio of Vijay from the MacArthur Fellows web site:

Vijay Gupta is a violinist and social justice advocate providing musical enrichment and valuable human connection to the homeless, incarcerated, and other under-resourced communities in Los Angeles. After joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a young violinist, Gupta began to give lessons to Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained musician whose mental illness led to homelessness. This experience motivated him to play for the homeless and mentally ill living on Skid Row, an area of concentrated poverty and homelessness in downtown Los Angeles and, eventually, to cofound the not-for-profit Street Symphony.

Street Symphony harnesses the power of the arts to foster social connection and support. Along with nearly eighty musicians he has recruited from the L.A. Philharmonic and elsewhere, Gupta and Street Symphony present regular monthly programs of live musical performances at shelters, county jails, and treatment and transitional housing facilities. Street Symphony also offers musical education through workshops and its recently launched Fellows Program, which pairs emerging artists from local universities with talented individuals from Skid Row for a year-long instruction program.

One of Street Symphony’s most notable efforts is its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah on Skid Row. In free community workshops, residents are invited to perform or create their own pieces, culminating in a final performance of new original works alongside selections from Handel’s oratorio. Gupta’s model of outreach to marginalized individuals in places that offer other social services and his strategy of generating musical projects through extended engagement and by forging interpersonal relationships has begun to inspire other performing groups in the Los Angeles area to be more socially conscious. Dedicated to bringing beauty, respite, and purpose to those all too often ignored by society, Gupta is demonstrating the capacity of music to validate our shared humanity and focusing needed attention on interrelated social issues that cluster at places such as Skid Row.

Here are a few short videos that offer a glimpse into Handel’s Messiah on Skid Row:

Clearly, there is genius at work here.

Bringing together world class musicians to offer concerts and musical instruction to those on Skid Row is a brilliant idea. And then allowing those on Skid Row the opportunity to perform alongside those musicians makes it even more impactful for all those involved.

So thank you to the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius.

And thank you to Vijay Gupta for sharing your gift of music with those less fortunate. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you.

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