Photographer Who Secretly Donated Millions to Artists for Decades Reveals Herself

Photographer Who Secretly Donated Millions to Artists for Decades Reveals Herself

Imagine getting a call out of the blue telling you that were being given $25,000 by an anonymous donor to do with whatever you pleased. One photographer's organization has made that call 220 times, giving out a total of $5.5 million dollars, and now, she's finally revealing herself.

In 1996, the National Endowment of the Arts stopped supporting individual artists. In response, the Anonymous Was a Woman grant was born, annually giving $25,000 to 10 female artists over 40 years old and "at a critical junction in their career." The name of the grant is a reference to "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf, meant to recognize female artists throughout history who signed their works anonymously so that they would be taken more seriously. Since its creation, the grant has given out an astonishing $5.5 million to 220 female artists, but the donor did not reveal herself until very recently. 

The donor, Susan Unterberg, is a 77-year-old photographer based in New York whose work currently hangs in such museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. Despite her success, she said she has experienced numerous issues due to being a woman, saying she decided to reveal herself as the donor so she can more easily fight for female artists and to encourage further shows of philanthropy from others:

[Women] don't get museum shows as often as men, they don't command the same prices in the art world. And it doesn't seem to be changing.

Statistics support Unterberg's assertion: the National Museum of Women in the Arts says that women earn 81 percent as much as their male artist counterparts and that the permanent collections of major museums in the U.S. and Europe are composed of male artists at a rate of about 95 percent. 

Unterberg chose to stay anonymous for so long so her own work would still be judged objectively. The grant is funded solely via funds from the foundation she and her sister inherited from their father, Nathan Appleman. Those chosen are nominated and evaluated by other women in the field (a network of about 600 at the moment). Recent winners include the likes of Amy Sherald, who went on to paint the portrait of Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Beyond the money, many recipients have noted that the psychological impact of the grant is just as immense as the financial impact. Unterberg says she will continue to fund the grant. 

Lead image by Kai Pilger, used under Creative Commons.

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21 Comments

Marlo Smith's picture

I'm 45, started my passion for photography later than some... doubt I'll ever be a name... but if I get even a few who like my work .... I'll get there on my own. No feeling sorry cause I'm a woman, it's not a handicap and I've got the same civil rights as anybody else. Jmo. She's a thoughtful lady though to do that.

Jen Photographs's picture

On paper, you have the same civil rights as men.

In reality? You don't. Women are by large marginalized or ignored. If you're unlucky enough to be a disabled woman, a black woman, a Hispanic woman, over-40, etc., your ability to obtain equal rights worsen. And if you live in a country that isn't "progressive" like USA, Canada, and parts of Europe...your chances of succeeding worsen further.

To be clear, yes, there are anecdotal cases where this doesn't occur to individuals. And yes, there are certain niche industries where women succeed where men don't. But as a collective group, these instances are still unusual and rare.

OH WOW!
I'm an AWE of your litany of why women or [insert.. cultural / racial / physical / age] person has no hope against men.

Not only that, you proceed to chastise the best countries in the world when it comes to women and equality.

If you're uptight about selling your photos for lots of money, then get a life.

Commercial "Art" is about who you know, not talent.
Commercial "Art" is about being able to produce a 3000 word dissertation about why the crap photo you made is "Art"

Currently, in the commercial "Art" world, you're chances of getting payed a crap load of money for your photo gets buffs BECAUSE you're a disabled trans black women over 40.

What "I" consider "Art" is a beautiful photograph. I don't care who takes it.
To me, any art needs to stand by itself.
If it needs to be explained, it's failed.

Anonymous's picture

Whoa, man. Relax.

Jon Dize's picture

Relax? Lol! I cannot find the lie in his comment. I know, in 2018 Americana, truth is not as popular as it once was. Personally, I like the harsh, blunt truth. No excuses!

Anonymous's picture

Did I say he lied? I said he should relax. For someone so concerned with truth, it would do you well not to insert words in others' mouths.

Jon Dize's picture

I did not say you said he lied. RELAX! I said he was telling the truth. Which apparently you read as him needing to relax. Jen was passionate in her whining about the injustice women suffer. I read no "RELAX!" from you then. I suggest it is YOU who needs to RELAX. CHILL! Nobody put words into your mouth. Women don't need you to defend them... that would be sexist to suggest there was such a need. As you said, don't put words into my mouth. Errr... text. Now! I know you have to get in the last word... I can tell, you just gotta. So, go ahead, but I have reached my Ping Pong Textural budget for you today. Shhhhhh.... Calm down! Relax! Jen will be okay... I promise!

Anonymous's picture

No, the "relax" was in response to the capitalized words and overabundance of exclamation marks (which translate to screaming online). Jen didn't use that tone, so I saw no need to tell her to relax. It was a comment on decorum, not content.

I also didn't defend Jen or disagree with John. I responded to John's tone, which is similar to yours.

And where exactly can you find evidence that I need to "chill" here? I'm not the one rambling and spewing out inane fragmented sentences with a ton of exclamation marks and capitalized words. Writing "relax" and "chill" in caps with exclamation marks makes you look crazy, btw.

And I only need to get in the last word when the previous comment is wrong, which is why I'm responding to you.

Jon Dize's picture

Relax Allen... I have been on the Internet since Nov. 1988, I understand the Caps Anxiety some suffer. I type in CAPS, when I want to BOLD or HIGHLIGHT a word or statement. Always have, always will. There is no BOLD, so I to the BOLDING myself. If that causes you angst, I suggest you never read my posts again. It is a habit of mine, I thoroughly enjoy. UNDERSTAND? Lol! Calm down Al! It will all BE OK!

Jon Dize's picture

CAN WE PLEASE BE DONE WITH THIS? I don't like Ping Pong Chatting. You said yours. I said mine. We should not have to do this all day. Your response as mine are both predictable at this point. Lets call it a DRAW!

Anonymous's picture

Are you trying to respond to me? If so, respond to my post, not your own. Didn't teach that in 1988 Internet school I guess.

That is unless you're having an argument with yourself. If so, I'm fascinated how this will pan out. Please carry on.

Anonymous's picture

You keep assuming I'm flustered. There's no evidence of that. I'm not sure you're all there.

If you were a competent conversationalist, there would be no need to continually highlight what is of note in your statements. But it seems that the almost 30 years of being on the internet hasn't taught you a thing about how to effectively communicate. That's rather depressing.

And what happened to your "Ping Pong Textural budget" (with further unnecessary capitalizations)? Did the people in your head increase your allowance?

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Jen, I'm not quite sure how is it harder to obtain equal civil right for disabled women, for instance. I can imagine that being disabled whenever you are a woman, man, animal or an alien life form makes life of such individual more complicated on various levels. A person on a wheelchair may not be able to access all locations and a quadriplegic will never become a successful track and field athlete but they can still both vote and are equal before the law. So let's not confuse actual ability of an individual to obtain something with this individual's right to do so.

Without a grain of spite and in all seriousness I would like to ask who hurt you because your rant seems to me somehow aggressive but even if you need to get this off your chest it's good to remember to keep your statements coherent and avoid self ridiculing.

And just to give you a different perspective, when I fail at something in my life I have to face my own shortcomings, lack of commitment, laziness, lack of skills, etc. At best I can maybe call it a bad luck. So why is it so that certain women when they fail at something in life decide to play the inferior sex card?

Btw, you have less posts on Instagram than me and more followers. How should I feel about it? :)

Jen Photographs's picture

Love the mansplaining here.

Lol "mansplaining" XD

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Looks like after all the ranting about discrimination of women the only comment you decided to make is a sexist one. Quite ironic.

You mention in your profile you want to grow your photography business and eventually make living by taking photos. I sincerely wish you all the luck but I think you can also help yourself a great deal by realizing your emotional posts across the web can deter some potential customers. Being a social justice warrior and a small business owner does not go well together. Good luck.

Jen Photographs's picture

Explaining the reality a majority of women in a number of countries face is not ranting nor emotional.

As for you...

Jon Dize's picture

Mansplaining? Nothing sexist about that.

Jon Dize's picture

"Mainsplaining..." In one word, you've lost all credibility.

Jon Dize's picture

Just because you imagine she is an "Anecdotal Case," my wife is in the 35% tax bracket each year, not because she is a woman, nor was she denied her right to equal status and income, because she is a woman.

I've never heard her whine about being a woman.

She set a goal, worked hard and achieved it.

I think I will nickname her "Anecdotal Woman" from this point forward.

At 64, I have lived a long time. I have seen many things. I have witnessed those who refuse to be victims and I have witnessed those who refuse to be anything other than victims.

I have even seen Professional Victims.

I have to print and show my wife Anecdotal Woman your comments. I can see her shaking her head now.

In 47 years, I have never seen her whine about anything.

She sets a goal, identifies the obstacles, organizes a plan to either eliminate or circumnavigate those obstacles and she shares and celebrates the successes.

But whine? NEVER!

And get this... You may imagine it all but impossible, but... SHE'S A WOMAN!

Imagine that!

Marlo Smith's picture

Well Jen.... the world isn't perfect and it never will be. In my 25 years as an adult I've come across a few men who were condescending etc...all you can do is roll your eyes and ignore it. You can't force people to think like you. I've also seen women who think they are better than men. Its safe to say these things won't change because you can put laws in place to protect a person's rights but you can't legally force them to be a nice person. And speaking to your phrase of "if your unlucky to be a"....
I don't think anyone should ever think that way. Your not unlucky to be any of those... the people who give those people a hard time or attack them are the unlucky ones....because they don't know Love and compassion. They will live their lives missing out. I do have a disadvantage, I was in a head on car accident with my husband and 2yr old in 98... we lived thank God but it messed up my ankle and I don't have flexibility in it. So I can't get out to some areas and get the landscape photos I'd like to. I guess what I'm saying is don't waste your life worrying about what others think or how they treat you, or comparing what you have to what they have. Ignore the rude ones, live life to the fullest you can! For every handful of jerks out there....there are hundreds of good guys. Same goes for the ladies.