Last summer, when Nancy B. Davidson's phone rang and a caller announced that she had won a $25,000 grant from an anonymous benefactor, Ms. Davidson, a sculptor, thought it was a ruse played by her friend, Heidi. "I said, 'Now, Heidi, cut it out,' " Ms. Davidson said.
But it was not a joke, and in August, checks for $25,000 did arrive in the mailboxes of Ms. Davidson and 10 other women who are artists. The money came from a foundation called Anonymous Was a Woman, whose mission is to help redress perceived discrimination in the art world and help make up for the elimination of grants to artists from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The founder of Anonymous Was a Woman, who insists on her privacy, seems to be an updated, female, ideological version of John Beresford Tipton, the mysterious television philanthropist in the popular 1950's television series "The Millionaire."
Much like the beneficiaries in that drama -- and Ms. Davidson -- many recipients were completely surprised, either because they had never heard of the award, which is now in its second year, or had not known they had been nominated. "I almost cried," said Judy Glantzman, a painter.
Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, "Over the years, this award should change a lot of people's lives."
That would please the award's backer enormously. Although she declined to be interviewed, even anonymously, she did explain her beneficence in written responses, sent over a fax machine through an intermediary, to written questions (some of which she ignored).
Noting that men have dominated the art world "as elsewhere," she said: "I wanted to break those ranks in a way that emphasizes generosity of the heart, not ego. Through my anonymity I honor those women artists who, centuries ago, signed their paintings 'Anonymous,' discouraged by society and denied professional recognition." (Art historians cite American quiltmakers as another example of that.)
The program, she wrote, "is not about me."
"It is about the artists, their work and the continued need for support of creativity, especially for women."
Those who know the donor would say only that she is a woman who lives in New York and is an artist, though not a famous one. No one knew the source of her fortune or its extent. As a title for her foundation, she borrowed a line from Virginia Woolf's novel "A Room of One's Own."
She decided to act when the National Endowment for the Arts, under conservative attack for using taxpayer money to support artists whose work was deemed controversial, stopped giving grants to individual artists. In 1995, the last year of its awards, the endowment gave $20,000 grants to 58 visual artists.
"It was obvious that there was a need for more private support," she wrote in her fax.
Some other institutions -- the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation and the Tiffany Foundation, to name two -- do support individual artists who apply for grants. The Anonymous Was a Woman awards, however, operate like the MacArthur Foundation "genius awards" in that artists do not apply for them but rather are nominated, ideally without their knowledge.
Each year, the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation plans to give at least 10 unrestricted grants to female visual artists older than 30 who show creative promise and are at a critical juncture in their career, the foundation's literature states.
To Be Middle-Aged, Gifted and Female
"I love this award because it targets midcareer women," said Mary Lucier, 53, a video installation artist who has exhibited for 30 years and is perhaps the best known of the award winners. "Many others go to emerging artists or to older, established, usually male, artists. The midcareer female is probably the least glamorous kind of artist, though you get glamorous again if you can hang in there until your 80's."
Coming at such a point, the award may provide a psychological boost as much as a monetary one. "You get to a point where you need to be freed so you can go to the next level," said Laura Hoptman, an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
The entire operation of the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation, which opened for business last year with 10 awards, was intended to be anonymous and female. Curators, art historians and writers who are women were asked to nominate artists and they, too, are supposed to remain secret. To give the letters soliciting nominations credence, they were signed by Ms. Hambourg and a few other art professionals, not by the donor.
This year, 68 people were invited to make one nomination each; 50 did so, suggesting 47 names. A different panel of women in the nonprofit arts sector, also anonymous, winnowed the list.
Besides Ms. Davidson, Ms. Lucier and Ms. Glantzman, this year's winners are Tomie Arai, a painter and installation artist; Kathy Grove, a photographer; Maren Hassinger, an installation artist; Maria Elena Gonzalez and Joyce Scott, both sculptors and installation artists, and Gretchen Bender, Cheryl Donegan and Cheryl Dunyea, video artists.
Marcia Tucker, the director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, praised the choices. "I must say they did well, judging by who got the awards," she said. "The range is spectacular, with all kinds of ages, all kinds of work. I look at this list and think, 'These artists should be better known.' " Ms. Tucker also signed the letter soliciting nominations to give the foundation credence, but neither she nor Ms. Hambourg participated in choosing the winners.
Notwithstanding the success of artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Kiki Smith today -- or Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Joan Mitchell in the past -- female artists, as a class, still seem to face some bias. "You can take almost any woman artist whose work is known to be original and important, and look at their resumes," Ms. Davidson said. "Where are they in terms of major shows and museums and major galleries? There are very few with those credentials."
"Dealers are still prejudiced against women, and some collectors are, too," she added.
Many people in the art world agreed that discrimination against artists who are women, whether overt or subtle, persisted despite some improvement in recent years. Historically "women were systematically excluded from the institutions of art," said Steven Z. Levine, an art historian at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "And there still are institutional impediments built into the infrastructure of our society that make it more difficult for women to succeed."
What a Difference A Grant Makes
In theory, the Anonymous Was a Woman awards will help by giving them more resources for their work and more attention, which is what seemed to have happened to Jeanne Silverthorne, who won a grant in 1996. Ms. Silverthorne, a sculptor who works in clay and rubber, said she used the grant to buy more rubber, "which is very expensive." With it, she made two large works, bigger than she had made before, for a recent exhibition.
"The critical response was good," she said, helping her to make some sales. (Paradoxically, these were sales of her smaller pieces).
The grant also allowed Ms. Silverthorne to cut her teaching jobs from two to one, providing more time for her artwork.
Ms. Davidson, whose sculptures frequently involve latex balloons dressed in human clothing, also put the award to use immediately. She was preparing an exhibition for the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. "As soon as I heard, I got a bank loan to pay for materials to finish that show," she said.
She also used the money to pay for an exhibition catalogue and to pay assistants to help her finish the sewing and detailed handwork of her sculptures. "I have no idea how I would have finished without it," Ms. Davidson said.
Ms. Lucier, in contrast, put her grant in the bank and plans to use some of it to finance the production and post-production work on a major, long-range project she has conceived but will not describe. The rest is to be invested in new video technology. "I've been making video art for 30-some years now, and the technology keeps changing," she said. "So this grant is a terrific opportunity to experiment with new technology."
Such uses of award money are typical among artists, for whom time and resources are the main constraints. Except for those anointed by fame, many artists -- male or female -- survive by teaching, not by their artistic endeavors. Ms. Davidson, who is 53, has always taught and was recently promoted to associate professor at the State University College at Purchase, N.Y., making $37,000 a year in the full-time post. She makes her art in her off-hours.
"But the problem is there's never quite enough time or money to throw yourself at it," she said. "Most sculptors I know, their credit cards are maxed out. Then after a show, you always hope something happens, and you're faced with credit-card debt which is costly. I have more than $20,000 in credit card debt."
Ms. Davidson acknowledged that most of her work does not find buyers, partly because of its fragility. "My works are made of latex, they last for six weeks to two months, and then deteriorate, and the balloons have to be replaced," she said. "A lot of collectors don't like that high-maintenance art."
But her new award might help. Her recent works were, for the first time, capable of being made in fiberglass, which does last. "I don't have much of the grant left, but some might go for that," Ms. Davidson said. Those works would likely be part of a show she has been invited to give at the Neuberger Museum in Westchester County next summer.
The award's only stipulation requires recipients to write to the foundation after a year to explain the award's effect on their work or their life.
"I will look to this information over the course of several cycles to determine the future of the award," the donor wrote in response to a faxed question about her commitment to the foundation.
Meanwhile, none of the award winners interviewed were asking any questions about the donor, though each said she wondered who it was. "It seemed a little rude to try to find out," Ms. Silverthorne said.