Composer and art historian with Philly ties win MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’

Julia Wolfe poses for a portrait

Julia Wolfe poses for a portrait

It is a dream come true: A congratulatory call from out of the blue with a no-strings-attached $625,000 gift.

This week, two people with local ties got that call from the MacArthur Foundation, which today announced the 23 recipients of its annual “Genius Grants.”

Composer Julia Wolfe, a Mongomery County native who now lives in New York, and art historian and curator Kellie Jones, a New Yorker whose husband is a University of Pennsylvania professor and musicologist, were named 2016 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope,” MacArthur President Julia Stasch said. “They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts, and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways. Their creativity, dedication, and impact inspire us all.”

The winners will receive their grant in quarterly installments over the next five years. The money “the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential,” according to the foundation’s website.

Jones was selected for “deepening our understanding of contemporary art of the African Diaspora and securing its place in the canons of modern and contemporary art. Her research and curatorial practice, which span large-scale museum exhibitions with extensive catalogues as well as scholarly books and articles, have been instrumental in introducing the work of now seminal black artists (such as Martin Puryear, David Hammons, and Lorna Simpson) to wide audiences and bringing to light long-forgotten or overlooked black artists,” according to the foundation. See more on Jones here.

The foundation honored Wolfe, “who combines influences from folk, classical, and rock genres in works that are grounded in historical and legendary narratives. Often described as post-minimalist, Wolfe demonstrates an openness to sonic possibilities, with choral elements and instruments such as the mountain dulcimer, bagpipes, and body percussion often augmenting string and orchestral arrangements. Many of her works blur the line between music and theatrical experience.” the foundation wrote. See more on Wolfe here.

Wolfe told NewsWorks Tonight’s Dave Heller today that MacArthur officials had a bit of trouble giving her the good news.

“I don’t always pick up the phone from numbers I don’t recognize,” she laughed, adding that she ignored three calls from MacArthur before she finally answered.

Wolfe, who won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for music, credited her career start to an inspirational teacher at the Residential College of the University of Michigan and said she aims to be just as nurturing at New York University’s Steinhardt School, where she now teaches.

Wolfe acknowledged that juggling her artistic pursuits with a professorship can be “a tricky balance,” and some MacArthur recipients use their grants to quit their “day jobs” to focus on their art or work. But Wolfe has no plans to leave her students.

“They’re in my hearts,” she said. “I’ve been actually texting with many of them today.”


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