Cecilia A. Conrad, a managing director of the foundation and the leader of the fellows program, said the goal was to find “people on the precipice,” where the award will make a difference, but also to inspire creativity more broadly.
“We hope that when people read about the fellows, it makes them think about how they might be more creative in their own lives,” Ms. Conrad said. “It does something for the human spirit.”
The honorees include relatively well-known figures in the arts, like the playwright Annie Baker, 36, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick”; the theater artist Taylor Mac, 44, the creator of the 24-hour piece “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”; and the writers Jesmyn Ward, 40, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46.
The youngest fellow is Cristina Jiménez Moreta, 33, a founder and executive director of United We Dream, a national network of advocates for immigrant youths. The oldest is Dawoud Bey, 63, a Chicago-based photographer and educator whose portraits of communities include “Harlem Redux” and “The Birmingham Project.”
Even some fellows who have already achieved substantial recognition described the honor as bringing palpable relief.
“I feel released from a profound, decades-old financial anxiety,” Ms. Baker said by email. “Now my job is just to wake up every morning and ask myself: What do I want to write? What is the most important thing I could be writing?”
Few honors are as wrapped in mystery and speculation as the MacArthur. Potential fellows cannot apply but are suggested by a network of hundreds of nominators from across the country, in a range of fields, and winnowed down by an anonymous committee of about a dozen.
When the winners were informed several weeks ago, more than one wondered if it was a prank call. “I’m still in a bit of a haze,” Mr. Mac said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s wonderful. It’s embarrassing. It’s all of it.”
Some fellows described taking winding paths to their current occupation. Gabriel Victora, 40, a Brazilian-born immunologist at Rockefeller University who studies the mechanisms by which antibodies become more effective over time at countering pathogens, came to the United States at 17 to pursue a career as a concert pianist before pivoting to science.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, a Nigerian-born painter now living in Los Angeles whose work explores transnational identity, studied both biology and art as an undergraduate, and, as the daughter of scientists, had to grow into the idea of art as a potential career. “I think of my studio as a lab sometimes,” she said. “When I’m working out a new idea, I try to be as methodical as I can.”
Jason De Léon, 40, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, trained as an archaeologist studying ancient sites in Mexico, before shifting focus to clandestine migration across the United States-Mexico border, which he studies using a combination of oral history, archaeological research and forensic science.
“I wear a lot of different hats in my work,” Mr. De Léon said. “Most of my career has been defined by making it up as I go along.”
Other fellows include Nikole Hannah-Jones, 41, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who writes about racial injustice in housing and education; Yuval Sharon, 37, a Los Angeles-based opera director who has staged works in a train station and a fleet of moving cars; and Trevor Paglen, 43, a conceptual artist and geographer whose work explores invisible aspects of military and corporate power.
While only individuals are eligible for fellowships, some winners spoke of the intensely collaborative nature of their work and of the ways they might use the money and prestige to benefit collaborators, including nonprofessionals.
“I have worked with such amazing people from outside academia,” said Betsy Levy Paluck, 39, a psychologist at Princeton who has studied the ways social norms and social networks influence behavior in settings like American high schools or post-conflict Rwanda. “Some of my best ideas are really theirs.”
Greg Asbed, 54, a founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which seeks to improve conditions in the Florida tomato industry, said the fellowship money would be used to sustain and expand the group’s Fair Food Program, which enlists the purchasing power of large corporations to compel growers to improve working conditions. (Mr. Asbed added that he hoped publicity from his award would help persuade Wendy’s, the only one of the five largest fast-food companies not to join its agreement with tomato growers, to reconsider.)
Mr. Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Sympathizer,” said he wanted to use some of the money to hire an editor to oversee the blog he created for the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, as recognition to the broader tradition that made his own success possible.
“I think back to the first Asian-American writers,” he said. “They were really lonely people back then. They deserve this fellowship, too.”
Mr. Nguyen, a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California who has toggled between fiction and scholarship, added that the honor came with something paradoxical: a new opportunity to fail.
“I’ve always been someone who didn’t understand why we had these boundaries between disciplines, but when you try something new it can be humiliating,” he said. “Hopefully that’s something the MacArthur will enable: to continue risking humiliation.”