Where are all of Portland's bright ideas?
Creative? Sure, but lack of MacArthur grants means there are few Rose City 'geniuses'
There's no way to pretty this one up, so we might as well get right to it. Every year, Chicago's MacArthur Foundation awards 20 to 25 of what are known as 'genius awards.' During the past 31 years, 850 of the no-strings-attached, $500,000 fellowship grants have been handed out.
Portland's haul? Zero.
That's right. The singular recognition of creative genius in this country and we've never had a winner.
Several people who grew up in Portland but moved to other places have won. We've had a college student or two spend a few years here and later win. But nobody in Portland has answered that phone call telling them that they had been selected (because that's how it's done - no public nominations, no applications, no advance warning) and that tomorrow they can quit their job, buy a beachfront house in Tahiti or use the money to finance the great work the MacArthur board thinks they have in them.
Winners don't have to report back to the foundation. The awards, according to the foundation, are investments in people, not based on works accomplished or specific works expected.
Portland poet Floyd Skloot says he's stunned to learn that nobody in Portland has won a MacArthur. After looking at the roster of poetry and literature winners, Skloot understands why the city lacks a winner. Portland, he says, for all its belief in itself as a magnet for young creatives, lacks the infrastructure to support young literary geniuses.
Skloot's daughter, Rebecca Skloot, wrote the nationally acclaimed book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.' A few years ago, when Rebecca was looking to nurture her interest in creative nonfiction, she knew she had to leave Portland, Skloot says. Her journey took her to the University of Pittsburgh, Manhattan and now Chicago, places with respected masters of fine arts and writers workshop programs.
Floyd Skloot also says Portland lacks what he calls 'a tastemaker.' That could be an influential literary arts magazine or press. The closest in recent years, he says, might have been Oregon poet laureate William Stafford, much revered but 'the anti-MacArthur,' according to Skloot. The list of MacArthur winners for poetry is studded with writers exploring new styles, Skloot says, not traditional storytellers. Stafford, in line with local tradition, promoted making poetry more accessible even at the cost of innovation.
David Schiff, a nationally respected composer and Reed College professor, says he's not surprised to learn no one in Portland has won one of the genius awards.
'We're a small town that does not have a major university, that does not have a major arts school,' Schiff says. 'We're off the map in a number of ways.'
Schiff recognizes almost all the names on the list of MacArthur award winners in the music field, and he spots a couple of trends. He is shocked by the large percentage who come from the world of jazz, and more specifically avant-garde jazz practiced by East Coast black musicians - not in great supply in Portland.
'It looks like somebody in the inner circle of MacArthur feels strongly this is where it should go,' says Schiff, noting the lack of winners from rock or classical (especially minimalist) music.
Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation • Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University marine biologist based in Newport, is the only Oregon MacArthur winner. Benoit-Bird won a $500,000 fellowship in 2010 as a result of her work recording sea animals underwater.
Young, creative types
Schiff has a connection with the MacArthur awards. Ten years ago, he found a letter in his mailbox - he says his heart stopped as he opened the envelope - but it wasn't because he was selected. The foundation asked him to become one of its anonymous nominators for the prize.
Before deciding not to participate, Schiff learned from the foundation that in the award's early years grants were given to notable people toward the end of their careers, which resulted in the awards becoming better known. In recent years, the foundation has concentrated on promising creative people at or near the beginning of their careers.
Portland may not have winners because the nomination and selection process for MacArthurs takes place in secret and the foundation lacks a network in the Rose City. That's the view of a number of people interviewed for this story. But, there are indeed MacArthur nominators living here anonymously.
The theory that the MacArthur board doesn't respect the Pacific Northwest loses credence considering that at least 15 of the genius awards have been won by Seattle residents.
That's the part that worries Schiff.
'The comparison between Seattle and Portland is quite horrifying, and it shows us that something needs to be done,' he says.
Schiff says it makes a difference that the University of Washington is in Seattle and the University of Oregon is based in Eugene. It also matters that Portland needs a new orchestra hall and opera house. Even more, Schiff says, local arts groups are torn between supporting local musicians and bringing in stars from the outside.
'That tension,' he says, 'keeps us from nourishing our young.'
Outside of independent rock, there really isn't much of a cutting-edge music scene in Portland, according to Schiff.
'What happens is that people interested in that may spend a couple years here because rent is cheap and then they realize they have to be in New York,' he says.
Choosing a different life
Then there are the questions of who comes here in the first place, and who stays. Six years ago, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel was doing his postdoctorate work at the University of Arizona, considered a top-tier research institution in that field. Siegel and his fiancé decided to leave Arizona, and after a search decided on Portland, aware of the choice he was making. There is no world-class physics or astronomy research being conducted here, he says.
Siegel has found jobs, teaching at Lewis and Clark College and now working as science and health editor at Trapit, a small Internet discovery engine company with offices in Southeast Portland.
His interests have broadened beyond research. Even if he were to win a MacArthur, Siegel says, he wouldn't leave his job to concentrate on research; he'd use the money to fund his efforts to make physics and astronomy accessible to the masses.
Siegel doesn't for a minute regret the choice he made to live here. He willingly traded in a life guided by ambition and 80-hour lab weeks for what he considers a fuller, richer life.
So maybe Portland attracts a certain kind of creative person, Siegel says. People like him, 'The ones that want a life.'
Steve Arch, like Siegel, was at one time a well-regarded research scientist. But while Siegel and fiancé made a conscious choice of lifestyle instead of ambition, Arch's story is more one of seduction.
When Arch was offered his position as a biology professor at Reed College, he and his wife decided he'd take it, but only for two or three years. They'd move when one of the country's top research institutions offered him a job.
That was 40 years ago. The calls certainly came - Arch says he's been offered four jobs at major research labs since he moved to Portland and began teaching at Reed. Each time a call came in, he and his wife would discuss moving, and each time they'd decide they would rather stay in Portland.
'The attractiveness of the hard-edged rat race was much less than being able to live a self-directed life here,' Arch says. 'We're not all that creative? I think that's an interesting possibility. You have to work too hard to be creative.'
Arch is set to retire next year, with no regrets about the research he might have done. He is willing to admit he might have been seduced by a Portland lifestyle.
'You'd like to be able to find an excuse, but I don't know,' he says. 'Are the food carts just too attractive?'
Arch, by the way, has known MacArthur winners. He's even taught one at Reed. Gina Turrigiano was one of his undergraduate students. She's now a Brandeis University professor of biology.
Arch says he's had at least 50 of his science students go on to earn Ph.Ds and find careers in research, but none of them in Portland. There simply aren't any local science institutions considered in the top tier nationally, he says.
Physicist Siegel, looking at the list of 13 astronomers who have won MacArthurs, says he is familiar with seven of them, and all are professors at major research institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley.
Siegel is familiar with about the same number of the 25 physicists who have won, a list, he says, heavy on string theorists.
'This is actually kind of nice, (that) I only know seven of these,' he says. 'It make me think maybe they took a chance on people.'
Not a pushy place
Roger Porter, a Reed College English professor, says he isn't surprised at the absence of Portlanders among MacArthur winners. Beyond the lack of a university here to support research, Porter cites the dearth of other institutional support for creative work.
'If you think about theater, dance, opera and galleries, we don't have the great companies in Portland,' Porter says. 'We have good companies, but certainly nothing national class.'
Porter mentions the lack of an iconic work of architecture in Portland - one eye-opening building that locals would want to show to out of town visitors - as a metaphor for the absence of cutting-edge people in Portland.
'When people get fairly well known, they have to leave Portland,' he says. 'Portland is a jumping-off place.'
Porter credits Portland State University historian Carl Abbott, who has compared Portland to Seattle, with insight that might help explain the MacArthur imbalance between the two cities.
'Portland is a city that builds consensus,' he says. 'Seattle is a city that fosters innovation. There are movers and shakers in Seattle. Portland is all about process.'
Abbott adds that Portland's ingrained sense of modesty might be another factor.
'Portland is not a very pushy place,' Abbott says. 'People in Portland are not great self-promoters. It's a culture of modesty.'
Modesty, he says, is not likely to garner awards.
Mark Berrettini, who teaches film at Portland State, says the local film scene, different from most art forms, is full of creative filmmakers, some who have moved here for our culture of independent film making.
'If somebody asked me, I could give then 10 names (worthy of MacArthurs),' Berrettini says.
Berrettini, looking at the list of 21 who have won MacArthurs in film making and photography, says he mostly sees names of people who have broken through the 'unknown' label but not yet reached commercial success.
'They're not filmmakers working with mini cams and $50,000,' Berrettini says.
Jeff Jahn, a local curator and arts critic, says Portland's problem starts with the local arts scene, which shies away from rewarding artists doing the most innovative work. For example, he says, local fellowships are usually awarded to artists who have had long careers, rather than emerging young talent.
'One of the things we don't do is single out excellence,' Jahn says. 'We value community above excellence.'
As a result, Jahn says artists here find it harder to get recognized.
'If you're from Portland, you've got to be twice as good because you've got to get noticed outside and cut to the head of the line,' Jahn says.
But Jahn insists there are artists in Portland creating new, cutting-edge work.
'If MacArthur has not awarded a grant to somebody of creative talent in Portland,' he says, 'it's their flaw, not ours.'
• Dear MacArthur Foundation, here's a list of geniuses to consider:
© 2010 Corey Arnold, Galicia, Spain • Corey Arnold is a Portland photographer and Alaskan commercial fisherman. He chronicles the commercial fishing lifestyle throughout the world in a lifelong project FISH-WORK. His pictures have been featured in The Paris Review, Esquire, Italian Rolling Stone, The Sunday Telegraph, Artweek, Outside and Juxtapoz.
Tribune File Photo: Kyle Green • Kellar Autumn holds a gecko against a laser contact measurement device that he designed at his Lewis and Clark laboratory. His breakthrough findings on the self-cleaning adhesives of the gecko's feet could change nanotechnology and aeronautics, and make him very rich in the process.
OK, so maybe Portland doesn't have any up-and-coming geniuses, or at least up-and-comers discovered by the MacArthur Foundation.
The Tribune asked a handful of local creative types to nominate their own Portland budding (and one or two not so budding) geniuses - original voices the MacArthur people might want to consider for future grants.
Our hopelessly incomplete list:
• Diana Abu-Jaber, writer
• Kellar Autumn, scientist
• Carrie Brownstein, musician and satirist
• Katherine Dunn, writer
• Todd Haines, filmmaker
• Matt McCormick, filmmaker
• Peter Richardson, filmmaker
• David Schiff, composer
• Gus van Sant, filmmaker
• Brad Cloepfil, architect
• Corey Arnold, photographer
For a list of this year's MacArthur winners, go to: www.macfound.org and click on 'MacArthur Fellows.'