- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CHICAGO (AP) - David Simon, creator of the HBO television series “The Wire,” is among 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” _ news that left him with what he described as “a vague sense of guilt.”

The $500,000 grants were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The money, paid quarterly over five years, comes with no strings, allowing winners unfettered freedom to pursue their creativity.

Simon’s guilt stemmed from already being amply funded in an industry that’s “a little bit recession-proof,” he said. Still, the award’s prestige will go far with network executives. While critically acclaimed, Simon’s dissection of urban problems in “The Wire” and more recently “Treme” hasn’t yet scored Emmys or high Nielsen ratings.

“It makes it easier to go into the room with the network and argue against doing the usual thing in television,” Simon said. His next pitch? The history of the CIA since World War II and a housing desegregation fight in Yonkers are two subjects inspiring him now. “Not all these things have the best possible commercial outlook,” he said.

MacArthur winners don’t need to tell anyone how they’ll spend the grant money. There are no reporting requirements.

“We could spend it all on cake,” joked theater director David Cromer, one of this year’s recipients. Cromer, known for staging American classics like “Our Town,” said he wasn’t ready to discuss what he may attempt with the grant’s support. But he has some non-cake ideas.

“It purchases you freedom,” Cromer said. “I can do things now that aren’t necessarily going to generate an income.”

That’s exactly what the foundation has in mind. Bob Gallucci, the foundation’s president, called the grants “an investment in people who have already done extraordinary things.” There have been 828 MacArthur Fellows, including this year’s winners.

“We’re hoping not only that they’ll do extraordinary things in the future, but that this fellowship will make that somewhat more likely,” Gallucci said.

Jason Moran, a jazz pianist and composer, said he was elated and that the grant would fuel many of the projects that have lain dormant in his mind.

“I have already begun making minor plans on band expeditions to Senegal to study Senegalese drumming, or bringing our music down to perform in rural parts of America, or to simply create new collaborations with artists in other fields, or begin a series of recordings made on the old format of Edison wax cylinders,” he said. “It’s all in play now.”

None of the winners is from New Orleans, but the Big Easy exerts a strong pull on the 2010 grantees. Simon’s newest HBO series “Treme” is about residents of post-Katrina New Orleans. Cromer recently revived Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” set in New Orleans, to great praise.

And Shannon Lee Dawdy, an anthropologist and archaeologist from the University of Chicago, has studied New Orleans since 1994. After Hurricane Katrina, she worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Louisiana to make sure recovery efforts respected the city’s archaeological heritage.

She regrets she hasn’t been able to save Holt Cemetery, a potter’s field where homemade plot markers were washed away by the post-Katrina flooding.

“I would like to work with the local community to preserve living traditions and the site itself,” Dawdy said, and the MacArthur grant may help. “It might mean that I’m able take things I’ve long wished to do, things in the ‘wouldn’t it be nice?’ category, and make that actually happen magically.”

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