Not all superheros wear capes. One anonymous woman has been fighting gender inequality in the art world for decades by doling out over $5.5 million in grants to women artists. Now, 77-year-old photographic artist Susan Unterberg is revealing her secret identity so she can put her mouth where her money is.
The grant program is strategically named Anonymous Was A Woman, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where she wrote about how women felt compelled to sign their work as Anonymous so their feminine nomenclatures won’t negatively affect their work’s reception. Unterbeg herself kept her identity as the grant’s sole patron anonymous out of fear that it would affect the reception of her work as she built a name in the contemporary art world.
Twenty-two years later, Unterberg has decided to reveal herself to use her platform for good. “It’s a great time for women to speak up,” Unterberg told The New York Times. “I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice.” Unterberg once met her grant’s requirements: a middle-aged female artist undervalued by the art world, at a crossroads in her work. But now her work hangs on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Gender parity in the art world has a long way to go. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, a 51% majority of visual artists are women, but they make on average 81 cents to the dollar as their male peers. Work by female artists makes up just 1-3% of major permanent museum collections in the United States and Europe.
Inequality drips from the top to the bottom: according to the Association of Art Museum Directors, of museums with significant budgets of at least $15 million, only 30% of directors are women, and they earn 25% less than male directors. When decision-makers are disproportionately men, it’s very difficult for women artists to garner equal attention. As 2014 grant winner Carrie Mae Weems explained to The New York Times, “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.”
With her voice newly unveiled, Unterberg hopes to call attention to the obstacles barring parity in the art world and the vital importance of women supporting each other. Though Unterberg’s grant has always helped fight inequality by giving individual women a helping hand, now she wants to advocate for change in a more public sphere. Following on the heels of the Time’s Up movement’s success in Hollywood, there’s reason to believe that the first step in fixing gender inequality is to get loud about calling it out. But you can’t pick up a megaphone if you’re anonymous.