August 10, 2012 | Culture and Media
Guerrilla Girls: Auditing the Art World
By Anna Louie Sussman
At 17 percent, female representation in Congress is low. But there’s a place in Washington, D.C., where women’s representation is even worse: its art museums. The artists on view at the National Gallery of Art are 98 percent male; at the National Portrait Gallery, 93 percent.
These statistics come courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls, a loosely knit and anonymous contingent of female artists who, while wearing gorilla masks, have been lamenting the abysmal treatment of women artists for nearly three decades. They’re audit-happy and full of recommendations--think of them as the Government Accountability Office of the art world, if the G.A.O. had a clever sense of humor and a skilled graphics department.
They launched in 1985, after the opening of a massive show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that included only 13 women out of 169 artists. A group of women artists gathered to formulate a response, which birthed the name Guerrilla Girls, and culminated in a midnight vandalism escapade in which they papered the streets of Soho with posters saying as much.
“One of us wrote a press release which we all edited, and we just put these posters, two posters, up on the streets of New York about the sad state of women artists in the New York art world, and all hell broke loose,” said a founding member of the group who calls herself Frida Kahlo, the late Mexican painter (all of the Girls take on names of deceased female art figures).
Since that day, they’ve slowly evolved from impromptu renegades to prominent champions for women’s equality both within the art world and outside it. After decades of activism, they’re the go-to group for institutions interested in engaging in a little self-criticism.
“The Guerrilla Girls are a group of artists, and what we do is really just one project after another. We kind of take on and experiment with things that we’re interested in, the way that all artists do,” said Kathe Kollwitz, another founding member. “Often, curators will come to us. We have moles in the institutions. Sometimes it’s very official, like a few years ago when the Washington Post gave us a page in the newspaper as part of a section about feminism and art. They said, ‘Do something about the museums in Washington, D.C.,’ which we did. Or the Venice Biennale (the contemporary art fair that takes place bi-annually in Venice) says, ‘Criticize the Biennale.’”
The Guerrillas, said Kahlo, play a useful role. As “professional complainers,” but importantly they are a catalyst for discussion of, and action on, the issue of women and people of color in art institutions.
“There are people in the art world with a good conscience, who want to change things, and we do the dirty work for them,” said Kahlo. “We can slide in, complain about the institution, and they can say, ‘Oh, they’re just artists, we can’t censor them!’ And then it starts a dialogue. Those people are our allies, but it’s not like we’re having meetings with these museums. We’re outsiders, and we’re working from the outside in.”
The Girls have also authored books such as The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, which features many women and diverse artists whose work has been overlooked. It is now often taught as part of a standard art history curriculum. They tour around the world lecturing to the public, regularly drawing crowds of hundreds. In Toronto, unexpectedly high demand forced them to relocate their lecture from a university hall to the city’s convention center.
“I think the other reason we’ve grown and grown is really not connected to the art world so much as the fact that we’re a symbol for really speaking up in a crazy outrageous way about issues that you care about,” said Kollwitz. “So many people want to do that, and we’ve developed a philosophy and some techniques that other people can use.”
“Most political art points to something and goes, ‘This is bad.’ We’re not successful every time but our goal is to find a new way into an issue, twist it around somehow, use facts, use humor, use outrageous visuals, and try to present it in a way that’s unforgettable,” Kollwitz added.
In recent years, women artists like Louise Bourgeois, Rachel Whiteread, Diane Arbus and Cecily Brown have had solo shows or retrospectives at some of the world’s major museums making a handful of these female artists household names. If we believe that museums have the responsibility to show the art and expression of more than one demographic the Guerrilla Girls ask the important question of what change the future will hold for female artists.
“A hundred years from now, if there was a show of the art of 2012, would it be the same twenty artists over and over again, or would museums have things in their collections that really are the picture of our time right now?”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.