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Photographer Outs Herself as Mystery Donor of $5.5M to Female Artists


In 1996, a mysterious program called Anonymous Was a Woman began giving $25,000 with no questions asked to 10 underrecognized female artists over the age of 40. Now, 22 years and $5.5 million later, the anonymous benefactor behind the program has finally stepped forward: she’s 77-year-old photographer Susan Unterberg.

The photographer revealed her identity to the New York Times saying that “it’s a great time for women to speak up. I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice.”

Unterberg says she was once an underrecognized female artist over 40 who personally experienced the challenges faced by female artists. But unlike many other struggling female artists, Unterberg didn’t lack financial means: she and her sister inherited money when their oilman father, Nathan Appleman, passed away in 1992.

She named her grant program “Anonymous Was a Woman,” a line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, as a nod to female artists throughout history who signed their works “Anonymous” so that the work would be taken more seriously by a wider audience.

Recipients of the unrestricted grant, many of whom were in dire financial straits (though the award is not need-based), receive out-of-the-blue phone calls informing them of the $25,000 gift.

22 years into giving away her money — she’s the sole patron — to 220 artists and counting, Unterberg remains frustrated with the current landscape of gender equality in the art world.

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

“Statistics cited by the National Museum of Women in the Arts show that female artists earn 81 cents for every dollar made by male artists,” writes the Times, “that work by female artists makes up just 3 percent to 5 percent of major permanent museum collections in the United States and Europe; and that of some 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the United States from 2007 through 2013, only 27 percent were devoted to female artists.”

“I’m eager for the grant to become better known,” Unterberg tells the Times. “Women have been anonymous for far too long.”

Photographers who have received the Anonymous Was a Woman grant include Cindy Bernard, Nancy Burson, Lois Conner, KayLynn Deveney, Terry Evans, Wendy Ewald, An-My Le, Laura Letinsky, Deborah Luster, Andrea Modica, Judith Joy Ross, Victoria Sambunaris, Shellburne Thurber, and Deborah Willis.

You can find the complete list of previous recipients on the Anonymous Was a Woman website.

(via New York Times via Fstoppers)

Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Vladimir Solomyani