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.