How A 77-Year-Old Photographer Supported Fellow Female Artists For More Than 20 Years

"Women have been anonymous for far too long."

For 22 years, deserving female artists over the age of 40 have received $25,000 grants from an unknown benefactor as part of a program called Anonymous Was a Woman. As it turns out, Anonymous really was a woman — and a fellow artist. Photographer Susan Unterberg has revealed herself to be the donor behind the grants, which have totaled $5.5 million and benefited 220 artists.

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The name Anonymous Was a Woman comes from a line in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, referring to female artists who historically kept their identities unknown to receive equal treatment. As the New York Times points out, things still aren't equal for women in the art world, whose work makes up only 3 to 5 percent of major American and European permanent museum collections.

"I was working really hard to become known as a contemporary artist," Unterberg, now 77, told the Times of her own choice to remain anonymous in her generosity. "And this I felt would have influenced the way people looked at my work or saw me."

"It's a great time for women to speak up. I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice," the photographer said of her decision to come forward after all these years. She added her hope that the program will become "better known," saying, "Women have been anonymous for far too long."

Funds for the program come from the foundation Unterberg and her sister inherited from their father, an oilman. She was inspired to pay it forward after the National Endowment for the Arts discontinued grants for individuals. Women are nominated for the prize by other women in the arts, and a committee of five panelists decides on the recipients, who must be "at a crossroads in their practice."

One famous recipient is Amy Sherald, who painted former First Lady Michelle Obama's official portrait. Sherald told the Times that she was unable to pay her rent when the check arrived in 2017. "It saved my life in terms of securing my studio to make that portrait," she said.

Unterberg will reportedly continue to underwrite the prize without voting on the selection panel. Her story is a positive example of using one's wealth to give back to those who have not received the same advantages, as well as the remarkable power of women supporting each other.

Cover image: Foxy burrow / Shutterstock.com

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