In Chicago, MacArthur Genius Grant Fellows Unveil a Citywide Show

To celebrate the MacArthur Fellows Program’s 40th anniversary, more than two dozen shows and installations by the likes of Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems are popping up around Chicago through summer and fall.

Rendering of “Black Wall Street Journey” by Rick Lowe

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the MacArthur Fellows Program to offer great minds across disciplines the resources to exercise their own creative instincts for society’s benefit. Commonly known as the “Genius Grant,” the annual accolade awards between 20 and 30 individuals $625,000 paid over five years as an investment in their future work—often with no strings attached. Since the program first launched, in 1981, more than 900 people including Ada Louise Huxtable, David Foster Wallace, and Liza Lou have been named MacArthur Fellows. 

To celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary, the foundation is opening more than two dozen shows and specially commissioned installations by previous Genius Grant recipients around Chicago. Called “Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change, and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40,” the citywide show amounts to a biennial-style outing that puts the ingenuity of 29 visual artists and grant winners on full display. It riffs on our current socio-political moment, exploring how resources such as air, land, water, and even culture can be held in common without being freely available—and how they’re often exclusionary.

Abigail Winograd, the curator hired by the MacArthur Foundation, notes the show has been nearly four years in the making. “We want to meet people where they are,” she tells the New York Times. “Part of the problem with the biennial model is that it happens and it disappears. That was not the goal here. The idea was to have this art as a community resource. In a way, it’s crowdsourced curation.” 

“Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found, By Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored” by Kara Walker at the DuSable Museum of African American History. Photography by Martin Giese

“Toward Common Cause” is headlined by two main group exhibitions, held at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and the Stony Island Arts Bank, both of which recently opened and will feature work by artists including Nicole Eisenman, Trevor Paglen, and Carrie Mae Weems. The painter Kerry James Marshall plans to unveil a site-specific work at the community center BBF Family Services later this summer; Kara Walker, meanwhile, will bring her black cutout figures to the DuSable Museum of African American History, where they’ll cover its rotunda’s circular walls. More works will open through the summer and into the fall. 

“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” says Cecilia Conrad, managing director of MacArthur Fellows. “They’re asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.”

All Stories