The grant has shelled out a total of $5.5 million over the course of 22 years to support under-recognized female artists who are over 40-years-old.
Artist Carrie Mae Weems was at a low point in her career when she received a call that would change her life. She remembers "feeling very anonymous and misunderstood and trying to figure out how to make some new work," when she was offered what she calls an "extraordinary gift." Speaking to The New York Times about how much the honor meant to her, Weems said, "It was important because I needed the money, but more than anything, I needed the encouragement and the support to keep making, to keep pushing — to continue to work in spite of all of the pressures."
The gift Weems received is part of a grant program, Anonymous Was a Woman, that has shelled out a total of $5.5 million over the course of 22 years to support underrecognized female artists who are over 40-years-old. With a name inspired by a line in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the grant pays tribute to the female artists in history who chose to sign their paintings "anonymous" just so their work would be taken as seriously as their male peers. However, despite having been such an important part of their lives, none of the recipients of the award knew whom to thank.
The donor behind the prize, Susan Unterberg, chose to remain anonymous for years. It was only last year that Unterberg—a previously underrecognized female artist over 40 herself—declared her identity to the world. "It’s a great time for women to speak up. I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice," she said, explaining why she chose to come out then. Based in New York, Unterberg is a renowned photographer who has experienced firsthand the hurdles faced by female artists all over the world.
"They 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," she said. The National Museum of Women in the Arts corroborated these claims with statistics that show that female artists earn 81 cents for every dollar made by male artists. Moreover, their work makes up for just about 3 to 5% of the major permanent museum collections in the United States and Europe. Weems too is well aware of this discrimination, saying, "Women continue to be seriously undervalued and underappreciated. The work is not taken as seriously, and men are still running the game. Men in power support men in power, and they want to see men in power."
Revealing that even her grown grandchildren didn't know she was behind the grant, Unterberg said she'd chosen to keep her identity secret so as to let her art be evaluated on its own terms. "I was working really hard to become known as a contemporary artist. And this I felt would have influenced the way people looked at my work or saw me. I’m a private person and I didn’t mind being unknown," she said. The founder and sole patron of Anonymous Was a Woman, Unterberg has supported 220 artists with the money she inherited from her late father, Nathan Appleman.
The idea for the grant came to Unterberg in 1996 while brainstorming with Marcia Tucker, the forceful curator and founder of the New Museum. "Since I was a middle-aged artist and always wanted to support women — I’m a feminist — this seemed like the perfect vehicle," she said. Some of the past winners of the grant include the likes of Louise Lawler, Tania Bruguera, Carolee Schneemann, and Mickalene Thomas. The recipients of the $25,000 grants are nominated and evaluated by other women in the field and chosen by five panelists on the selection committee.
Although revealing her identity was sure to give way to countless messages of gratitude, Unterberg says she never awarded the grants for recognition. "It’s thanks enough knowing I’ve helped people’s lives when they needed it. I’ll miss the secret pleasure of seeing people benefit from afar without my name being attached," she said, adding, "I’m eager for the grant to become better known. Women have been anonymous for far too long."