Steve Coleman, a saxophonist, won a MacArthur last year at age 57.Credit Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
KYLE ABRAHAM, a dancer, got a call two years ago saying he had won an award that came with a $625,000 check. After the initial shock, he decided to pay off $180,000 in student loans.
Sally Otto, an evolutionary biologist, got the call, too. She said she didn’t need the money so she has donated $500,000 to causes she felt deserved more recognition. Andrea Ghez, an astrophysicist, spent three-quarters of her windfall on her children.
“Just hiring more help with the logistics of life and not feeling that was a bad thing — it was part of doing my job well,” Dr. Ghez said. “I was so thrilled that I could have a work and family life.”
All three were recipients of MacArthur Foundation fellowships, a group better known as the “MacArthur geniuses.” The next class of fellows will be announced next week, and each one will receive a sudden surge of recognition as well as $625,000 paid out over the next five years.
But can a genius manage a financial windfall better than the average person?
There are plenty of studies that show how ruinous lump sums of money can be for recipients. Lottery winners can end up as life’s losers — at least those who make the news for ending up broke a few years after winning millions.
And the financial failures of star athletes are well documented. Mike Tyson, the boxer, made millions but ended up in debt. And there’s Lenny Dykstra, the baseball great who served six months for bankruptcy fraud, as well as the fleet of football players who have fast cars but little else when their careers are cut short.
But if a group of geniuses get phone calls out of the blue one autumn morning, would they have more to show for the $625,000 windfall at the end of five years? It turns out, judging from a sampling of MacArthur fellows, they would. And how they spent their windfall, which by the terms of the MacArthur awards is entirely up to them, is equally intriguing.
For one, the artists and scientists who win a MacArthur are, by definition, completely devoted to what they are doing — to the point that the money was not going to change their trajectory. For most, it was only going to enhance what they were already doing.
Steve Coleman, a saxophonist who won last year at age 57, said he had created a life over decades that required little money to maintain and could be supported with even less when times were tough. That way, he said, he wouldn’t have to worry when recording deals or performances dried up. He could still make music and pay his bills.
“All the decisions I make are based on music, and then I try to figure out how am I going to survive with the music things I’m doing,” he said.
“I live in Allentown, and the reason I live here is economics,” he added. “I lived in New York for 13 years,” he went on, but moved to Pennsylvania because New York had gotten too expensive. “I wanted to travel and do research.”
He said he learned a lesson from a music copyist in the 1980s on the importance of budgeting. He took it to heart and started making spreadsheets for all of his projects. “We have to plan the whole thing out — a tour, a record,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how many times that’s saved me.”
When the MacArthur money came in, he put it toward an idea he had started to develop — a program that brought musicians together to live in a city for three to four weeks to perform and be part of the community.
For Dr. Otto, the money was incidental to her work. Even though she grew up quite poor, she said, she never thought of spending the money on herself and said that her research would not benefit from extra funding. (She uses mathematical models to advance research on genetics and evolution.)
“The nature of what I do means that time is more precious than money for my research,” she said. “When I received the MacArthur it wasn’t, ‘Now I can do that study I wanted to do.’ I felt I was very supported by my university and by grants. But what I did feel was that as a scientist and a person I could have more influence” by giving it away.
So that’s what she is doing. So far, she has made three gifts of the entire annual amount to the Nature Trust of British Columbia, an environmental conservation program in Indonesia, and a fund at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches, to pay student researchers working on conservation issues.
For other fellows, it was as if they had won the lottery at the moment they needed it most.
Edith Widder, a marine biologist and inventor of several submersible vehicles to explore the ocean’s depths, said her award in 2006 allowed her to continue to operate the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, a research and advocacy organization she founded. She had started the organization a year earlier, after spending decades at an established oceanographic research institute.
Dr. Widder said she had thought it would be easy for her to raise money based on her past work, but she found otherwise. “We were struggling financially,” she said. “I put every penny of that MacArthur money back into ORCA.”
But as was true for many other recipients, the recognition from the award itself opened doors. News of what she was doing — she had invented a way to measure pollution levels in estuaries that feed into the ocean — led to grants from other foundations and eventually from the state of Florida.
She was also still able to continue doing deep-sea exploration. In 2012, she was part of the team that first photographed a giant squid in its natural environment, about 2,300 feet below the surface.
Money, of course, can have a protective quality. If you have your own, you don’t have to rely on other people as much. Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist who has developed a way to restore eyesight, said the MacArthur money helped ward off doubters. As part of her research, she created glasses that help bypass damaged cells to bring images directly to healthy cells that allow people to see again.
“To do something like this, science-wise, everything is hard,” she said. “You have to work with annoying people because everyone wants something. The MacArthur was a buffer against that.”
It also brought her to the attention of investors interested enough to make her idea commercially viable.
As for spending the money, years in the lab had made her wants modest. “I had money to order Chinese food or pizza for everyone when we’re working late at the lab,” Dr. Nirenberg said. “That sounds ludicrous, but it helps. I can also give bonuses to the team to keep everyone happy and incentivized.”
The downsides of being publicly acknowledged as a genius with new wealth are no different for MacArthur fellows than for anyone whose good fortune becomes publicly known. People they haven’t spoken to in years reappear to ask about a loan.
Mr. Abraham, the dancer, said one dispiriting moment was when an artist he had worked with in the past tried to take advantage of him, quadrupling his rate to $8,000 from under $2,000.
“I said, ‘This is how much you charged me in the past, and I think the amount is a bit extreme,’ ” he said. “After that, they offered their services in kind.”
Then, there is the problem of taking on so much so fast, like a deluge after a dry summer.
Mr. Coleman said he had to think hard about what to do with such a large amount of money, even though it is spread over five years and his money management was more akin to that of an accountant than a saxophonist. “The MacArthur people, they give you the money and they don’t do anything else,” he said. “They let you make your own mistakes.”
So far, though, he said he had managed it well. His secret? He has continued to budget just as he has long done — a good practice for anyone who comes into a windfall.
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