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Secret Gifts To Women Artists: 16 Years Later, Donor Is Still Anonymous

Amazing: just when you think nothing is secret any more, something comes along that is.

In 1997, I wrote a Page One article for the New York Times headlined: “Anonymous Gifts for Art, So Women Creating It Aren’t.”

Crawl,_1983,_MoMA,_bronze.jpgIt was about a foundation called Anonymous Was a Woman, which was started by a philanthropist to help redress the discrimination in the art world against women, and also to help make up for the elimination of National Endowment for the Arts grants to individual artists. 

Reporting the article, I learned that the founder of the AWAW foundation was a woman “who insists on her privacy,” and I respected that. (Ok, I asked around then, and I have my theories now, but I never got a definitive answer and I’ve never disclosed my guess.) 

She is still a secret officially, too. And today, the foundation announced this year’s winners of the $25,000 prize, which goes to:

…women artists over 45 years of age and at a critical juncture in their lives or careers, to continue to grow and pursue their work. The Award is given in recognition of an artist’s accomplishments, artistic growth and the quality of her work. It is not need-based.

SheilaPepe1448.jpgThey are (descriptions theirs):

  • Eleanor Antin, Artist
  • Linda Besemer, Painter
  • Dara Birnbaum, Visual Artist
  • Andrea Bowers, Artist
  • Ann Hamilton, Artist / Installation
  • Yoko Inoue, Visual Artist
  • Jungjin Lee, Artist / Photographer
  • Mary Miss, Artist
  • Sheila Pepe, Artist (her Mind the Gap, at the Brooklyn Museum, 2005, is at right)
  • Judith Shea, Sculptor (her Crawl, 1983, at MoMA, is above) 

This year’s awards brings the total number of winners to 161. Like MacArthur grants, they are notified “out of the blue” — someone else (critics, curators, previous winners) nominates them, without their knowledge, and those nominations are assessed by judges who also are supposed to remain unknown.

It’s sad that we still need grants like these to level the playing field, but it seems that we do, as Jerry Saltz has written about the lack of women artists in MoMA’s collection suggests. That’s just one initiative that’s taken place in the last year or two.



  1. Jim VanKirk says

    Couldn’t agree less Judith. How do you level a playing field based on Talent, imagination and ability?
    This award is nothing more than a red herring to ease the path of feminists.

  2. Aleta Boyce says

    Jim VanKirk – Really? You think the playing field is based on only talent, imagination and ability? Perhaps you’d like to look at statistics and history. There are a few books out there that many of us would be glad to recommend, not only about women artists but minorities as well.

  3. R. Collins says

    Please, this one should be retired to the basement. Why don’t we have a special prize for artists with green eyes who are always discriminated against by all those white men in administrative positions in the arts.
    There are plenty of female artists who have been recognized for their work. If an artist does good work then they will be noticed for what they do. Feminists are just annoying sexually challenged power junkies. This whole subject is tired and overworked. Your crowd is still laboring under the assumption that those bad white men are still in charge. Guess you haven’t read the other headlines recently. Most of the stuff this crowd churns out is more therapy than art anyway.

  4. Clearly R. Collins and Jim VanKirk have been brainwashed by the biased, male-dominated, media. After completely overlooking women, Mutual Art reported on those investing in female artists. No comparison to what continues to happen with men.—Who-s-Makin/617CE87370BFD742?utm_source=newsletter_b&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=nl_artfocus
    And I would suggest both men watch Misrepresentation. Although it doesn’t deal with women in the arts, it does point out the factual data about how women are portrayed in the media. One hint–condescending comments portraying feminists as sexually challenged power junkies. Wow! Unbelievable inappropriate and inaccurate.

  5. Jim VanKirk says

    Sorry Aleta you’ve got it all wrong. After 35 years of enhanced opportunity the work is rarely there and you’d like more? I suggest you earn it.

  6. I have to weigh in with at least one comment here: it’s certainly not true that all, or even most, women artists make “feminist art.” One tiny bit of evidence came at the Delaware Art Museum earlier this year: But your eyes would have discovered the same thing.
    It is denigrating, and wrong, to suggest otherwise.

  7. Jim VanKirk says

    Your link is not working Judith.
    Too bad because I’m interested in how it finally turned out, that battle.
    BTW am I speaking an unknown language? The comments directed at me by your readership seldom have any relevance to my points.

  8. Jim, I will post again: if it does not work this time, just go to the “Search” box on the right of these posts and put in “Delaware” — you’ll get both posts on this “battle.”

  9. Ive always enjoyed miss mary’s work. Its very inspiring.

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