Susan Unterberg’s Activist Philanthropy

The Phillips Collection is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage by presenting an exhibition (Celebrating Women Artists in The Phillips Collection, installed in the Phillips House galleries and presented online as the museum remains closed due to covid-19) and a virtual panel discussion (Artists of Conscience: Women, Race, Representation on September 24), both of which will feature artists who have received the Anonymous Was a Woman (AWAW) Award founded by Susan Unterberg. An artist and philanthropist based in New York, Unterberg is the recipient of the 2020 Visionary Woman Award from the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia; our presentation coincides with her exhibition there.

Here are excerpts from Unterberg’s text Activist Philanthropy.” Join us on September 24 to hear more from Unterberg and about AWAW.

Susan Unterberg’s exhibition at the Moore College of Art & Design (Photo: Joe Hu) and the Visionary Woman Award

In 1996, in reaction to the NEA cuts, I quietly started Anonymous Was A Woman, an organization that awards no-strings-attached grants of $25,000 each year to 10 women artists over the age of 40. I had recently inherited a foundation and, as a working artist in the middle of my own career, I was intimately familiar with the challenges that women artists face.

The mid-career period can be a desert for women artists: they are no longer hot, young commodities fresh for discovery, nor are they sufficiently old to be “rediscovered.” Women over 40 must also often balance the demands of family life—childcare, parental care, and, in some cases, single motherhood. Plus, studies have revealed that women are underpaid relative to men both in the art world and in other professions, which is notable since many women artists must hold multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Susan Unterberg. Photo: Alain Simic

To date, we have awarded over $6 million to 240 artists. The impact has been significant, with artists who received the award going on to exhibit at major museums and biennales, pursue ambitious new projects, or simply take a well-deserved break. But a recent data study released by Artnet News and In Other Words sharply challenged the illusion of progress for women in the arts: between 2008 and 2018, only 11 percent of art acquired by the country’s top museums for their permanent collections was by women; only 14 percent of museum exhibitions featured women artists; and the sale of women’s artwork in the global auction market comprised only 2 percent of the total market share. Needless to say, we have a long way to go.

In 2018, I made the choice to reveal my identity as the founder and sole patron of Anonymous Was A Woman. In a political climate where women were coming out to tell their stories in greater numbers than ever before, I felt that it was important to join the conversation as a vocal supporter of women artists, to proudly express my solidarity, and to draw attention to the ongoing need for support of this demographic. Anonymous no longer, I also hoped to use my platform to expand the reach of our grant and to offer a model to other philanthropists.

Anonymous Was A Woman’s mission as feminist philanthropy that begins from a place of advocacy and activism. This type of philanthropy—directed to a very specific need; awarded with no strings attached; and immune to the bureaucracy and entrenched structures of already-powerful institutions—ensures that funds have the maximum possible impact. Funds are awarded irrespective of some of the factors that impact decision-making within an institution (including placating donors, considering revenue or attendance implications, or prioritizing projects that may bring with them the support of well-resourced galleries). Most importantly, it allows for complete freedom to how the funds are used. This type of advocacy is crucial at a moment when there is a total vacuum of government support for the arts. While I am uncomfortable with the label of “philanthropist,” the truth is that it is what I am. And so I urge other philanthropists to take seriously the crisis of the current moment and consider activist philanthropy in arts and culture by directly funding the work of artists and creators.

Cultivating Community, Collaboration, and Connection During Covid

Alison Kysia, a member of Red Dirt Studio, reflects on the importance of creativity and communication.

A couple weeks after the shutdown due to covid-19, I was talking to a good friend who I nicknamed the oracle because of her consistent ability to say exactly what I need to hear. When I told her how disconnected I felt from the rituals and people that give my life meaning, she replied, “Do something you have been putting off. You know what it is. Do it today.” I immediately thought of Red Dirt Studio.

As a Muslim educator, I have written curricula and taught extensively about Islamophobia. I began to wonder how I could use art, including my 10 years of ceramics practice, to transform consciousness about the 9/11 era and amplify the experiences of impacted communities, particularly as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in 2021. I needed an art community to support my exploration, which is no small feat considering where I live. The Washington, DC, Beltway is dominated by institutions committed to the demonization of Muslims, like the US military, CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security. The hypernationalistic perspectives that inform these institutions are embodied by many people who populate and police cultural spaces here, resulting in some disheartening experiences. When I shared my frustration with artists and instructors sympathetic to my goals, I repeatedly heard the same advice—go to Red Dirt—making the oracle’s counsel that much clearer.

Red Dirt Studio in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, was founded in 1996 by Margaret Boozer, an accomplished ceramicist who started the multidisciplinary incubator as a result of her own disillusioning experiences in the art world. I called her, shared my intentions, and she enthusiastically invited me to join the studio and weekly two-hour seminar where residents discuss whatever it is they need to move their work forward. I finally felt like I was making progress. Except that we were in the covid shutdown and the studio was closed.

Red Dirt Studio seminar

Like everyone else, we moved online. Another resident offered to pair artists for weekly meetings to fuel our creative process despite all the unforeseen challenges. I was matched with Diana Baird N’Diaye, an anthropologist, artist, and curator at Smithsonian Folklife Center and expert on African and African American dress as manifestations of diverse cultural expression. The first time we spoke, we immediately connected as two Muslim intellectuals who have complex relationships with our faith, family, career, and desire to create. Despite all the uncertainty of the pandemic, Diana—and the larger Red Dirt community—became sources of great empowerment.

Diana Baird N’Diaye

Soon after Diana and I met, someone I love passed on after a long illness. Due to the pandemic, I was again faced with an inability to access the rituals that give my life meaning. As an artist who works with textiles, Diana has long made amulets inspired by her family’s Senegalese Muslim traditions and suggested I make one to hold my powerful memories. The design of my amulet was based on the community from which my loved one originated, the Druze, a little-known faith rooted in Islam and founded in the Fatimid Ismaili caliphate that ruled Egypt from 909-1171CE. Our dialogue about amulets further deepened the connection between us. Even though we both identify as Muslim, our experiences are distinct, reaffirming a beautiful Quranic verse (49:13): “O humanity, we created you from a single man and single woman and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.”

In the midst of suffering all around us, we wondered how others might benefit from the healing power of our conversation. Through a collaboration between Red Dirt and The Phillips Collection, we offered an amulet making workshop on July 25. Seeing as the event sold out, the topic clearly resonated. After describing the story of how Diana and I met and the process of creating our amulets, participants shared deeply intimate stories about the people who inspired their amulet design. As one participant aptly commented, “I never thought we could have this kind of connection over Zoom.” The Red Dirt community, my friendship with Diana, and the workshop participants all remind me that in times of great need, it is the act of creation coupled with nurturing relationships that truly give life meaning.

Photo of my children at the Druze shrine of Prophet Job in Lebanon. I used the star in my amulet design, which symbolizes the five limits (khams hudud): green/aql/mind; red/nafs/soul; yellow/kalima/word; blue/sabiq/precedent; white/tali/future. The swirls on the amulet design were made in three rotations while repeating the phrase that opens all but one of the Quranic chapters: bismillah al-rahman al-rahim/In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

I made paper beads out of the drawing and used beads from my loved one’s walking stick (pictured at left, which the inspirer of my amulet received while teaching in Kenya 50 years ago) to complete the amulet (pictured at right).

End of Summer Cocktail: The Sea Berry

Hold on to the last days of summer with four art-inspired cocktails that we will share over the weekend! Crafted by two adult education students from Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School

COCKTAIL #4: The Sea Berry by Wilfredo Tobar

The Sea Berry by Wilfredo Tobar

“The reason I selected this drink is because it is easy to make at home and refreshing, especially during hot summer days. You want to drink something refreshing made with some fresh ingredients, so when I was reading the description of ​Black Sea​, I was inspired to create a drink made with blackberries.”

Milton Avery, ​Black Sea​, 1959, Oil on canvas, 50 x 68 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1965


  • 6-8 mint leaves
  • 5 blackberries
  • 2 oz Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey
  • 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 0.5 oz simple syrup**
  • 1.5 oz ginger beer
  • Ice


  1. Fill up a tall glass with crushed or regular ice.
  2. Add all of the ingredients into the shaker, except for ginger beer.
  3. Add ice and shake vigorously.
  4. After shaking, add the ginger beer into the shaker, and then strain into a tall glass with ice.
  5. Garnish with a blackberry and mint.

*For the mocktail, add all the ingredients (except for the bourbon) into the shaker and shake vigorously before straining into a glass with ice. Use instead 3 oz fresh lemon juice, 3 oz simply syrup, and 1 splash of water (instead of the ginger beer).
**Make your own simple syrup. All you need is 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water. Mix them together in a small sauce pan and bring the mixture to boil. Then take it off the heat and let it cool.

Born and raised in El Salvador, Wilfredo Tobar moved to Washington, DC, in 2008. He started working in the hospitality industry as a busboy, then made his way to bartending; at the same time, the kitchen always had his attention. He always wanted to learn how to cook and get amazing flavors onto plates, so he decided to take Culinary Arts classes at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.