Can I Just Plan on Winning a MacArthur Genius Grant Please?

Nobody plans on wining a MacArthur Genius award.

Each year they’re awarded, and each year the press reports on how totally surprised all the winners were. This seems especially true for the artists toiling away in obscurity (or semi-obscurity). And yet, after Nicole Eisenman told the NYT that she never expected this type of grant, she went on to say what she’d do with the money: “I’ve never had an assistant, I might hire one to handle correspondence and outside stuff.”

Many artists can relate both to Eisenman’s assumption that a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant is not something that will someday magically drop into their lap and to her having reached a point in her career where what she needs is more help, to have more time, to make more art on her own terms.

The “correspondence and outside stuff” to Eisenman might be administrative work to a single choreographer trying to run a dance company; or researching grant opportunities to a visual artist; or getting a handle on promotion for an indie-filmmaker. Whatever you call it there almost inevitably comes a point where what an artist needs is an extra set of hands. Or, as the industry jargon would have it: added capacity.

A typical trajectory for an individual artist, or a collective begins with the art. The creative work and the programming invariably grows much faster than the resources to support it. The reason for this is quite plain: it’s the passion to make something (and not the passion to build great administrative systems) that is the rocket fuel that gets most artistic efforts to take off and brings fans and collaborators to the party.

Over time artists who stick with it find that they need to backfill all the infrastructure they didn’t need at the get-go. Either because they’ve achieved enough success that, as in Eisenman’s case there is a pile of correspondence that now really does need responding too, or because the scale and nature of the work they’re doing no longer fits their DIY ethos, their lean-and-mean budgets or their studio apartment!

It would be great if the MacArthur folks had deep enough pockets to buy every artist the capacity that Eisenman says she can now afford, but of course they can’t. So planning for an angel to descend from on high and take all the ‘outside stuff’ off your plate is really no plan at all. But that doesn’t mean that serious artists and small-budget arts organizations can’t develop strategies to enhance their capacity and generate the support they need to buy the skills and time their current and future work requires.

Certainly there is no formula for how an artist should build a career or how an artistic company should be structured and therefore the approaches to adding capacity should not be formulaic either. But a first step for those wishing they too could hire an assistant is to recognize and define the need and then to develop a customized capacity building plan to address it.

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