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An Anonymous Donor Turned Superhero

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51 percent of visual artists in the United States are women. On average, these women earn 81 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

This disparity may not seem dramatic, especially when compared to the big picture of pay gaps in America. But considering that women artists make up only three to five percent of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, the plight of women in fine arts seems to be hopeless.

This is where Susan Unterberg comes in.

Ms. Unterberg is the founder and sole patron of Anonymous Was a Woman, an unrestricted grant program which awards 10 endowments of $25,000 to “women artists over the age of 40 and at a critical junction in their career.” Since its inception in 1996, the program has donated $5.5 million to middle-aged, women artists who felt “very anonymous and misunderstood.”

However, up until this summer, Unterberg never took credit for her foundation. Instead, the 77-year-old New Yorker continued her own line of photography with works displayed in major museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Jewish Museum.

When asked why she chose to remain anonymous for so long, Unterberg remarked, “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,” she added, “and I didn’t mind being unknown.”

That doesn’t mean the grant went unappreciated. Nicole Eisenman, a 2014 recipient, told the New York Times that “[t]he lack of ego and the pure altruism in this grant is a beautiful thing.”

Many in the art community agree. In 2004, curator Laura Hoptman commissioned an assessment of the grant, which evaluated testimonies from about 70 of its past beneficiaries. She found the financial benefit of the award was only eclipsed by the psychological one.

Her report went so far as to say that the “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,” came at a vital juncture in the lives of each artist and helped to improve their quality of life. Many individuals called the grant ‘lifesaving’ and ‘a miracle.’

Ultimately, Unterberg said she will continue to fund the award, but will step down as a voting member of the selection committee. This does not change her stance as she says the need for such a grant is as pronounced today as it was when the foundation began in 1996.

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

Featured Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels

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