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Doctoral Student Wins $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship

Deborah Willis, a George Mason doctoral student and curator for the Smithsonian Institution, won a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

Deborah Willis, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cultural Studies program, has received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a "genius grant," from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Willis is curator of exhibitions at the Center for African American History and Culture and the Anacostia Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

The MacArthur Fellows Program encourages people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. Willis will receive $100,000 each year for the next five years to spend as she wishes, with no strings attached. The money will enable Willis to exercise her own creative instincts for the benefit of society at large.

"I am still stunned by the announcement," Willis says, one month after news of the award. Although she is still collecting her thoughts on how the money will be put to use, she already has two project ideas. Willis plans to work on a book about older women who work after age 70. The other project will focus on the issue of gun violence in memory of a slain nephew. Willis wants to photograph young black men and ask them what it means to be young, black, and male in our society. "My nephew was killed recently by a young man—he was robbed and shot. It has been difficult for our family because he was such a wonderful young man and had so much to give to society," Willis says.

Willis has curated a number of major exhibits and has written several books on African American photography, art, and culture. Her current exhibition at the Smithsonian, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, brings together the work of contemporary and early African American photographers.

Since the MacArthur award was created in 1981, there have been between 20 and 40 recipients annually. This year, 25 fellows were named based on extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction. Recipients are chosen by an anonymous selection committee composed of leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities, and nonprofit communities.

Willis, 52, began her doctoral studies in 1996. She received her M.A. in museum administration from C.U.N.Y. graduate school; an M.F.A. in photography from Pratt Institute; and her B.F.A. from the Philadelphia College of Art.

At George Mason, Willis has addressed the Cultural Studies Colloquium about her own work as a curator and a photographer, and has recruited other colloquium speakers throughout the years. She is in the process of completing her field specializations in visual culture and race, gender, and identity, pointed towards research on the black female body in photography.

"The Cultural Studies Program is especially proud of the exceptional quality of Deborah's work, both in the program and professionally. We are thrilled and honored that she has been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation," says Roger Lancaster, director, Cultural Studies. Willis has worked closely with a number of faculty members, including her chair Larry Levine, History, who was one of the first historians to win a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983.

You can visit Willis's current Smithsonian exhibit, online at


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