During the last two months, I’ve been batting around the idea of starting a newsletter to share articles, exhibition announcements, some of my recent publications, etc. , but before I think too deeply about actually doing it, invariably another news crisis, deadline or other distraction ultimately shift my focus elsewhere. This week, two stories captured my interest so profoundly, I had to share them here.
On Tuesday, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art released the papers of artist Alma Thomas (b. 1891, d. 1978). The digitized archives include over 6,700 images, letters, writings, and other ephemera which are now available for viewing. Poring through these documents has been nothing short of a treat; the correspondence alone is engrossing as it is illuminating, but it was this picture of Thomas, at the opening of her solo show at the Whitney Museum in 1972 that made my heart smile. At close to 80 years old, Thomas was the first black woman to have a solo show at the museum, a milestone whose significance is best described in her own words:
“One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.” (New York Times, May 4, 1972)
The second story reminded me of the power that’s contained in mystery. Today, the NYT published a piece on an anonymous donor who, over the course of 20+ years donated $5.5M dollars to support under-recognized women artists over the age of 40. The mysterious benefactor distributed vital funds to artists through a grant program called Anonymous Was a Woman, a nod to a passage in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”
Their advocacy has supported the mid-career work of artists including Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Beyte Saar, Alison Saar, and most recently Amy Sherald who used a portion of her funds to pay for the studio she used to create Michelle Obama’s portrait.
The foundation’s key donor has recently emerged as Susan Unterberg, a New York-based photographer who used part of a family inheritance to create the philanthropic fund with her sister. Now that she’s no longer anonymous, Unterberg hopes that she can now more forcefully lend her voice and gravitas to disrupt the institutions that continue to perpetuate systems of inequality in the arts.
This pair of powerful stories got me thinking about the hidden angels and cheerleaders in my own life, who have bestowed their time, energy, advocacy, advice, sponsorship, mentorship, and financial support to me, selflessly without any hint of an agenda or request for reciprocity. If we are so lucky, they make themselves known to us so that we can express our gratitude for their generosity, but there are those like Susan Unterberg who remain in the shadows, watching our growth from afar. They are our followers, our hype women, our rally squads, and our number 1 fans.
To those people, and to my readers who dutifully follow me here and elsewhere via @cultureshockart, I say with the most profound sense of gratitude, THANK YOU for your support.