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Trying It With a Net

A MacArthur fellowship bestows something new upon David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology: a more secure future.

January 27, 2002|DAVID PAGEL

Three months ago, David Wilson's cell phone rang in the middle of a meeting at his one-of-a-kind establishment, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. He was talking planning with Kelly Coyne, the museum's administrative director.

"It was a pretty down period, and we were trying to figure out how we were going to get through November," he says. "Financially, every month is a juggling act. We get to places where we're OK for two or three months but then it goes back to week-to-week.

"I got a call and I didn't recognize the number. I wasn't in the best of moods and I said to myself, 'Do I want to take this?' And then this guy, Dan Socolow, comes on and identifies himself as the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

"The first thing he asks is 'Are you alone?' and then 'Can you get alone?' So I went into the other room. He asked if I had ever known a MacArthur fellow, and I answered, 'I guess I know some.' When he said, 'Well, you know one better than you think you do,' I still didn't have any idea of what he was leading up to. I thought he was going to invite me to nominate someone. And then he broke the news."

Along with 22 others, Wilson had been named to the 2001 class of MacArthur fellows. He had gotten a "genius" grant, $500,000 out of the clear blue.

No stranger to the mysteries of the universe, Wilson is also familiar with the power of understatement. Pocketing his phone, he wrote a note to Coyne: "I think," he scribbled, "things are going to be a little bit better next month."

In 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation started giving money to artists and thinkers, scientists and dreamers, none of whom had asked for it. Every year since then, 20 to 40 individuals, in fields that range from music to molecular biology, architecture to agriculture, and poetry to primatology, get the same sort of call that interrupted Wilson on Oct. 18.

No applications are submitted (nominations are made and championed via a series of confidential recommendations), and no strings are attached. There are no restrictions on becoming a fellow, except that nominees must be residents or citizens of the United States. The $500,000 grant (before 2001, the amounts varied, with older fellows receiving more money) is paid out over five years; checks go out quarterly. Aside from occasional invitations to get together with other fellows, that's it: money, free and clear.

The process is famously confidential. Socolow's phone call was Wilson's only direct contact with the foundation. Everyone involved in the nomination, evaluation and selection of fellows is more than circumspect about the details of the procedure. Instead, the foundation relies on its mission statement as explanation: The grants are intellectual seed money, long-term investments that reward past accomplishments only in the sense that such achievements indicate a recipient is likely to do bigger and better things with the freedom provided by a bigger and better budget.

Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall, who received a MacArthur in 1997, calls it venture capital: "It underwrites a five-year period of research and development. It didn't change my approach to doing anything; it just made it easier. It eliminated immediate commercial concerns and let me take more chances."

Wilson has barely settled into considering the effect of his grant, but like Marshall, he sees it as an investment, and one more bit of serendipity underpinning the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Getting a MacArthur, he says, "was a huge relief....But it's not at all like winning the lottery--I mean, thank God, but it feels much more like a continuation of the sort of short-handed process that has been going on for 10 years, that has allowed us to get this far."

On a typical day at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, 30 to 60 patrons leave behind the glaring sunshine and speeding traffic of Venice Boulevard for the dimly lighted wonders of Wilson's galleries, whose floor plan resembles an overpopulated rabbit warren. Visitors are evenly divided between first-timers and repeat customers, families and art students, from the hip to the nerdy. It's dark inside, and before your eyes can adjust, your ears pick up all kinds of sounds: jangling bells, rushing water, a barking dog, a melancholic opera, and the soothing voices of men and women explaining arcane subjects in trustworthy tones.

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