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Is Creativity Linked to Mobility?

(image courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)
(all images courtesy the MacArthur Foundation)

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil,” American author Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote. The line appears as the epigraph in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2008 novel Unaccustomed Earth. It’s fitting, not only because Lahiri was born in London to Indian parents and raised in the United States, but also because Lahiri was a recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship (or “genius grant”). As new data from the MacArthur Foundation suggests, the fellows are an unusually mobile bunch.

(image courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

Between 1981 and 2013, 897 people received the now $625,000 grant (previously $500,000), which awards “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” In the art world, that has included the likes of Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Ida Applebroog and Robert Irwin. Writing in TimeMacArthur Fellows Program Vice President Cecilia Conrad explained how the foundation mined data to compare where these creative people were born versus where they were living when they receive the award.

Out of 701 fellows born in the United States, 79% were living outside their birth state when they received the award. (Weems was born in Portland, Oregon, but was living in New York and San Francisco when she received the award last year). Compare that with just 30% of the general population and 42% of college-educated individuals who move outside their home state, according to the US Census Bureau. The remaining 196 fellows were born outside the US and later became citizens here, underscoring the strong cultural and scientific contributions immigrants have made to this country.

(image courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

Fellows born in the US most frequently hailed from New York (160) and California (59). Internationally, they came from the UK (25), Canada (16), and Germany (14). The most common places where they were living within the US when they received the award were also New York (188) and California (172), with Massachusetts running close behind (107). Those living outside the country were most commonly in France (5) and the UK (4). The researchers do note that they took the latter data from where fellows were employed when they received the award, so the results don’t account for those who live in one place and work in another.

So, what makes these highly creative people move around? The study doesn’t offer direct answers, but Conrad offers a few ideas: 

People move for a variety of reasons, but one driving factor is economic opportunity. Scientists tend to cluster near the research universities and high-tech corridors of Massachusetts and California. For those in the arts, the concentration of potential employers and prospective customers in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco makes these urban centers attractive places to live. In addition, there are spillover benefits of being surrounded by other artists – the density of artists makes it possible for supporting services such as art supply stores or instrument repairers to prosper.

It would be interesting to see the foundation’s research duplicated on a larger scale — but in a way, the results might also just confirm what we already know. Not only does creativity beget creativity, but it also thrives on new experiences that, as Hawthorne’s metaphor suggests, act as fertilizer for innovative research and experimental expression. Feeling creatively dry? A change of scenery may be all you need.

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