Profiles of Arts Grantmakers

Anonymous Was a Woman

Judi Jennings

"Anonymous Was a Woman" is a brilliant name for a grant program focused on supporting individual women artists. The phrase is taken from A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf's classic statement of the challenges facing females seeking to create art. With these four words, Woolf succinctly and powerfully evoked the centuries long struggle of women to gain recognition as artists. Yet there is much more to this innovative grant program than its thought-provoking name.

Anonymous Was a Woman was created to fill a national need. In 1995, the National Endowment for the Arts, under intense political pressure, discontinued funding for individual artists. This galvanized an unnamed woman artist in New York to take action. "It was obvious there was a need for more private support," she later wrote. So she used her personal funds to help fill that void. Since 1996, Anonymous Was a Woman has awarded ten grants of $25,000 each per year, except one year when eleven were given. The purpose is to support mid-career women visual artists over the age of thirty-five who are at a critical juncture in their lives or careers. The overriding purpose of the grants is to allow the artists to pursue their work.

The donor remains anonymous. "It's not about me," she told The New York Times in 1997 in an anonymous interview by fax. "It's about the artists." Her determination supports the observation that the ways women "do" philanthropy are different from the ways men traditionally have done it in the past. Women donors today are typically less concerned with personal recognition and more focused on the results of their giving. By choosing to remain anonymous, the unnamed donor also gives new meaning and support to Virginia Woolf's telling phrase.

Choosing to focus on individual women artists was another bold statement. While some foundations and other giving programs shy away from direct funding for individual artists, artists themselves invariably stress the crucial importance of precisely this kind of support. Grants to individual artists can, for example, provide much needed resources for art supplies, new equipment, risk-taking and experimentation, time to create, personal assistants, documentation, catalogues, and opportunities to try new technologies.

Anonymous Was a Woman, like the Kentucky Foundation for Women, focuses on female artists because women have historically had less access both to resources and recognition for their art making. Awards to individual women artists also provide much needed affirmation and public recognition that is often as important to the artist as the financial support. "The grant bought me hard tools of the trade so that I could continue working. The grant bought me time. It bought me confidence," said one recent recipient of a grant from Anonymous Was a Woman.

But awarding direct grants to individual artists has its down-side, too; most notably, the highly personal nature of awards — and rejections. That's where another innovative aspect of this grant program comes in. Working with Lauren Katzowitz, executive director of Foundation Service, a management organization for private philanthropy, the donor adopted a selection process that is also anonymous. Potential recipients are nominated by invited but unnamed cultural experts, such as writers, curators, and art historians, and then reviewed by a separate group of anonymous peers. In 1998, a grant recipient told The New York Times that this anonymous selection process has “created a sisterhood free of jealousies and competitiveness.”

The end result of all this anonymity is increased recognition for the work of women artists today. Since 1996, Anonymous Was a Woman has awarded $1,525,000 to sixty-one mid-career women visual artists nationwide. “Over the years, this award will change a lot of people's lives,” said one woman curator. “There's more hope in the world now,” said a 1998 recipient. Virginia Woolf would be pleased.

Judi Jennings is executive director, Kentucky Foundation for Women