Visible Women

Why this woman anonymously donated millions to overlooked female artists

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Moya Crockett
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Susan Unterberg has donated more than £4m to 220 women artists as part of her Anonymous Was a Woman programme – because “women have been anonymous for far too long”.

Over the last 22 years, more than 200 women artists have received millions of pounds’ worth of financial support from a mysterious organisation called Anonymous Was a Woman. The project’s name refers to a line in Virginia Woolf’s feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own, in which the writer discusses how women artists have often been forced to disguise their gender throughout history. “I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” wrote Woolf.

Each woman contacted by Anonymous Was a Woman was offered funding of $25,000 (£19,025) to help her continue working on her art – a lifeline for many of the artists, all of whom were over 40 and none of whom had yet achieved mainstream success. But the artists were never told the identity of their generous benefactor. If anonymous was a woman, so was the person behind the donations.

But now, 77-year-old photographer Susan Unterberg has come forward to confirm that she is the founder and sole patron of the project. In an interview with The New York Times, Unterberg said she set up the grant programme with money she inherited after her wealthy father died in 1992. 

Overall, Unterberg has donated $5.5 million (about £4.2 million) to 220 artists since 1996. And for almost all of that time, she preferred to keep her role in Anonymous Was a Woman secret. “I’m a private person, and I didn’t mind being unknown,” she said.

But in recent months, she began to wonder whether she couldn’t do more good by speaking out. Eventually, she decided to go public to raise awareness of the challenges facing women artists, to try to inspire other philanthropists and to show the importance of women supporting other women.

“It’s a great time for women to speak up,” she said. “I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice.”

Unterberg said she had experienced and observed the barriers faced by women trying to make a living as artists. “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.”

As a result, she decided to use her money to help other women without her financial resources. “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.

An exhibition by artist Nicole Eisenman at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012. Eisenman is one of the women who has been helped by Unterberg

The issue of women’s work being shut out of mainstream galleries and museums is prevalent in the UK as well as in the US, where Unterberg is based (she lives in New York). According to analysis by The Guardian, the vast majority of shows at the Lisson Gallery, Hauser and Wirth, Gagosian, White Cube and Victoria Miro – five of the UK’s most prominent commercial galleries – over the last decade have only featured work by men.

The situation is little better in publicly-funded galleries and museums: female artists account for just 35% of Tate Modern’s collections and only 4% of the collection at the National Gallery of Scotland.

Now that they know of Unterberg’s identity, many of the artists she helped have publicly thanked her.

“It’s such a special form of generosity to do that anonymously,” Nicole Eisenman, who received a grant in 2014, told The New York Times. “The lack of ego and the pure altruism in this grant is a beautiful thing.”

Artist Amy Sherald, right, with her portrait of Michelle Obama and the former First Lady. Susan Unterberg gave Sherald $25,000 to support her art 

Amy Sherald, who painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, said Unterberg’s donation had saved her at a time when she needed it most.

“The time I got the cheque I actually was at a point where I couldn’t pay my rent,” she said. “I had $1,500 (£1,144) left and that’s exactly what my rent was.”

It had just been announced that she would be painting the former First Lady, Sherald said, yet she “was sitting there flat broke. It saved my life in terms of securing my studio to make that portrait.”

It’s always uplifting to see examples of women supporting other women – particularly when, like Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, their focus is on lifting up women whose achievements have been overlooked. At a time when it’s easy to feel frustrated by gender inequality, it’s comforting to know that there are still some very, very good people out there, striving to make a difference.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Jacqueline Day / Unsplash / Getty Images