The artist Carrie Mae Weems recalls sitting at her desk in Syracuse in 2014 “feeling very anonymous and misunderstood and trying to figure out how to make some new work” when she got the call.
“I was offered this extraordinary gift,” she 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 is part of a grant program that has paid out a total of $5.5 million over the last 22 years to support underrecognized female artists over age 40. It is called Anonymous Was a Woman, in reference to a line in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” to pay tribute to female artists in history who signed their paintings “Anonymous” so that their work would be taken seriously.
The donor behind the prize wanted to remain unknown. But now she is stepping out from behind the curtain: Susan Unterberg, herself a once underrecognized female artist over 40. In a recent interview at her Upper East Side home, she said she has decided to come forward so that she can more openly argue on behalf of women who are artists, demonstrate the importance of women supporting women and try to inspire other philanthropists.
“It’s a great time for women to speak up,” Ms. Unterberg said. “I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice.”
Ms. Unterberg, who turns 77 this weekend and is based in New York, has her photographic work in a few major museum collections — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum — and she had a career retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 2004. But she said she has experienced firsthand the hurdles faced by female artists all over the world.
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“They don’t get museum shows as often as men, they don’t command the same prices in the art world,” she said. “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; 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.
“Women continue to be seriously undervalued and underappreciated,” Ms. Weems said. “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.”
Just recently, the National Gallery in London acquired an artwork by a female artist for the first time in 27 years (a self-portrait by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi). And the Ford Foundation was among several organizations that recently received a letter from the curator Helen Molesworth about the possibility of starting a Time’s Up for Museums, borrowing the goal of a Hollywood group’s push for equality — 50/50 by 2020.
“Is now the time for a field-wide call for gender parity in all aspects of the profession?” Ms. Molesworth writes. “How might we bring the pressure of our current moment into our programming, our presentation of permanent collections, the way we pursue acquisitions, etc.?”
Ms. Unterberg said she had chosen to keep her identity secret so that her art would be evaluated on its own terms — even her grown grandchildren were unaware she was behind the grant. “I was working really hard to become known as a contemporary artist,” Ms. Unterberg said. “And this I felt would have influenced the way people looked at my work or saw me.”
“I’m a private person,” she added, “and I didn’t mind being unknown.”
As the founder and sole patron of the grant program, Ms. Unterberg has supported 220 artists with funds from the foundation she and her sister, Jill Roberts, inherited after their father, Nathan Appleman, an oilman and philanthropist, died in 1992.
She was moved to start the program in 1996 when the National Endowment for the Arts ended grants for individuals, as a way to give fellow female artists the kind of support she knew they needed, especially in the middle stage of their careers.
She got the idea 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,” Ms. Unterberg said.
Past winners — many of whom have gone on to present solo exhibitions at institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Venice Biennale — have included Louise Lawler, Tania Bruguera, Carolee Schneemann and Mickalene Thomas.
The artists who have received the $25,000 grant have long wondered about the person — or people — behind it. “It’s such a special form of generosity to do that anonymously,” said Nicole Eisenman, who received a grant in 2014. “The lack of ego and the pure altruism in this grant is a beautiful thing.”
The women are nominated and evaluated by other women in the field — curators, art writers and previous winners, who themselves are not identified. The five panelists on the selection committee — who have changed over the years — deliberate for a full day and are each paid $1,000 for their time.
The award is not need-based; women simply have to be over 40 (it used to be over 30 but changed early on) and at a crossroads in their practice, which they explain in their applications.
“It came right on time,” said Amy Sherald, who received the award in 2017 before it was announced that she would be painting Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.
“The time I got the check I actually was at a point where I couldn’t pay my rent,” she said in a telephone interview. “I had $1,500 left and that’s exactly what my rent was. The announcement of the portrait had just come out and I was sitting there flat broke. It saved my life in terms of securing my studio to make that portrait.”
An assessment of the grant, commissioned from the curator Laura Hoptman, was completed in 2004. After reviewing the testimonies of some 70 recipients, Ms. Hoptman said the psychological benefit had proven as decisive as the financial one, citing “a validation of their standing in the art community, a recognition of their past achievements, as well as a strong vote of confidence in their ability to continue to produce meaningful work.”
Obvious from the testimonies, Ms. Hoptman added, “is the life-changing quality of a well-deserved, substantial grant that comes from nowhere.”
“The terms most often used in this sampling,” she said, “were ‘lifesaver’ and ‘miracle.’”
Indeed, going public is likely to elicit some messages of gratitude, but Ms. Unterberg said she never awarded the grants for recognition. “It’s thanks enough knowing I’ve helped people’s lives when they needed it,” she said, adding, “I’ll miss the secret pleasure of seeing people benefit from afar without my name being attached.”
Ms. Unterberg — who is also finishing a five-year tenure as a chairwoman of the board of Yaddo, the artists’ retreat — said she will continue to underwrite the award, though no longer as a voting member of the selection panel.
The need for this type of support, Ms. Unterberg said, remains as pronounced as it was when she started. “It’s still a political moment two decades later,” she said, adding that the National Endowment for the Arts “is still under threat and women are still facing challenges in midcareer.”
“I’m eager for the grant to become better known,” she said. “Women have been anonymous for far too long.”