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How this philanthropist hopes to boost mid-career women artists

The work of women artists makes up only 3 to 5 percent of major museums' permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe. Many of these artists struggle financially -- but Susan Unterberg is trying to change that. For decades, the artist has supported her female peers as an anonymous benefactor. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Unterberg to discuss why she decided to put a name on her philanthropy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The work of women artists makes up just 3 to 5 percent in major museums in the U.S. and Europe, and many women have struggled economically while making their art.

    Susan Unterberg is an artist trying to change that. She worked in the shadows for decades as an anonymous benefactor.

    Jeffrey Brown went to find out why she decided to finally put a public face to her philanthropy.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A large gathering of artists in New York's Madison Square Park to share something and someone they had in common. All had benefited from a grant given anonymously for more than 20 years.

    And last summer, they had the opportunity to meet the woman behind it.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    The gods have given us the best day of the year. They must be the female gods.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A fellow artist named Susan Unterberg.

    Since 1996, Unterberg has helped support 240 women artists with grants totaling $6 million, money she inherited when her father died in 1992.

  • Woman:

    Changed my life.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    Oh, good.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The award is aimed at women in mid-career, over age 40, when, as Unterberg had seen herself, opportunities for women artists have historically grown sparse.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    I knew firsthand that there was a huge need for support in this middle range of women artists.

    Women artists often, when they were starting out fresh out of graduate school, got picked up immediately by galleries, and they had a bit of fame. And then now older artists are getting picked up, but…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Much older, yes.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    Much older. But the mid-career is almost like a desert.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why do you think that is?

  • Susan Unterberg:

    It's not sexy or seductive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Unterberg experienced early success as a photographer.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    I started making artist books.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She wanted her later work to be judged on its own merits and decided to keep her philanthropy a secret. She called the grant program Anonymous Was a Woman, a line from Virginia Woolf's book "A Room of One's Own" about how women artists through history had gone unacknowledged.

    But not putting her name to the grant also suited her.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    I am very proud of this grant, but I still like the life I had, which was more one of anonymity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Anonymous was you.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One newly named recipient, Elia Alba, told us of her reaction to winning the grant.

  • Elia Alba:

    I started to cry.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You started to cry?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Elia Alba:

    Yes, I started to cry, because of the nature of this grant. It really honors women. And I'm like in great — super great company, so many artists that I admire.

    And then, of course, I said, but, Elia, it's $25,000, so that was really great.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Alba, whose family comes from the Dominican Republic, creates work, like these dolls, that examine race, gender, and the sense of belonging in America.

    Part of her income comes from an administrative job in a legal and investment banking practice. The art is done mostly nights and weekends in her studio in this large artist space in the Bronx. The grant, she says, will allow her to buy equipment and hire an assistant to do needed prep work.

    But it offers even more.

  • Elia Alba:

    For me, these awards are a validation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That says what?

  • Elia Alba:

    That says, keep on working.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Elia Alba:

    Keep on working.

    There's ageism in the art world. I think you're kind of, like, ignored, because people are coming up. For me, I find myself questioning, am I doing the right thing?

    Maybe this sounds corny. It gives me hope. It gives me a lot of hope.

  • Amie Siegel:

    Sometimes, they're interesting because they're like miniature landscapes, like a miniature mesa.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Amie Siegel, based in Brooklyn, is another of the artists from the recently announced class of awardees.

  • Amie Siegel:

    It's so moving to know that there was a woman who began this award, and, in our era of self-promotion, did it not to call attention to herself, but to call attention to others.

    It's lovely. It's phenomenal.

    Right now, I'm working on a piece that was partially filmed in the Emirates, those islands and the displacement of sand, but also the displacement of people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She sees her work, photography, sculpture, performance and painting, as revealing hidden meanings and histories in the things all around us.

    And she's done well, with museum exhibitions and prestigious fellowships.

    But for her, too, the grant was something special.

  • Amie Siegel:

    I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe this is the Anonymous Was a Woman.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amie Siegel:

    It's wonderfully affirming to know that a group of art professionals really took a deep look at your work and wanted to say that you're on the right track and you're doing well.

    Everyone has the moments of really working alone, no matter how much support you have with galleries and curators and museums. It really doesn't matter who you are. You always carry that with you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The life of an artist involves plenty of self-questioning, Siegel says, as well as taking risks with ideas and finances.

    She will use this money to pay collaborators who'd gone without pay or traded services when she was low on funds, and to reinvest in materials to fuel the next series of pieces.

    That kind of investment in both materials and hope is exactly what Susan Unterberg intended when she began Anonymous Was a Woman. There have been improvements for women in the art world, she says, but not enough.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    Mid-career women artists are not getting the shows that they should be getting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And speaking out publicly seemed like a necessary next step.

  • Susan Unterberg:

    Today, only 11 percent of art that's bought by museums is by women artists.

    Now, that's pretty shocking, because we think women are doing better. And, perhaps, in some ways, they are. But it's a time where women need to speak out. And we need to be heard. And I need to have a voice in this conversation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    At 78, her own work examines a difficult present, the impact of climate change, an administration whose policies she opposes.

    And her hopes for women artists in the future? That these gatherings will be just as boisterous, even as the need for her grant won't be as great.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we are surely wishing her well with that.

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