The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymist feminist activists that wear gorilla masks in public to conceal their true identities. Each member of the Guerrilla Girls has taken, as their pseudonym, the name of a famous, and dead, woman artist from the past. There's a Frida Kahlo, there's a Kathe Kollwitz, a Lyubov Popova, and a Hannah Hoch. Their work, however, is not so much art as a statement about the sexism they believe, and fairly conclusively prove, is inherent in the art world.
The Whitechapel Gallery in east London has a room put aside looking at their back story and recent actions. Initially inspired to form after New York MOMA's 1984 exhibition International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Planned as a look at the most important contemporary artists in the world at that time it featured 169 male artists and only 13 female ones. To further compound this the show's curator Kynaston McShine said "that any artist who wasn't in the show should rethink his career".
Since then the Guerrilla Girls have been campaigning against and calling out sexism and racism in not just art but film, politics, and life in general. They've used culture jamming, handed out politicised handbills, and, most famously, produced a poster that asked 'Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?". The Whitechapel commission, Is it even worse in Europe?, revisits another poster, 1986's 'It's even worse in Europe' and collates data and responses they've amassed from surveying directors of art museums and public galleries across Europe.
They asked these institutions a selection of questions as regards to how many female artists they have in their collections, how many non-Western artists they have in their collections, if they'd ever run stats on diversity, and how many women they had on their staff etc; As well as providing space for said organisations, should they wish, to make comments. Rather depressingly, but oh too familiar in today's world, only 101 of the 383 museums and art spaces bothered to respond. You can see the list of those that did below:-
The Prado in Madrid claimed to keep internal statistics about the participation of women in their programmes but had an 87% male collection. Manchester Art Gallery replied that they "talk about these issues a lot" yet their collection was 80% male and 85% white. Poland came out best with more women artists in museum collections and more women in charge of those collections. Possibly a correlation there?
Only two museums had 40% or more women artists in their collection and 21 of the respondents had fewer than 20%. Seven of those were in Spain. Some galleries did include a lot of art from outside Europe and the US but had, in many cases, not been bold enough to host solo shows for artists from those regions yet. That, to me, would seem to be a case of market forces rather than out and out bias but if curators and managers live in fear things won't change quickly enough.
Of course, this opens the Guerrilla Girls, and me for writing about them I suppose, up to criticism of 'political correctness gone mad' but it doesn't seem mad to try and redress a clear and obvious imbalance. The Guerrilla Girls have been bold enough to exhibit complaints they'd received. Museum Sztuki from Lodz in Poland wondered why they hadn't asked about Eastern European artists. Kunsthalle Wien, Austria, made the perfectly valid point that solo exhibitions and visitor rankings were not the only markers they should be judged on and SCCA in Ljubljana complained the PDF form they'd been provided with did not allow/accept any letters that are not part of the English alphabet thus turning the criticism on its head and accusing the Guerrilla Girls themselves of Anglo-saxon dominance.
It goes to show what a thorny world it is when you try to do the right thing and that's probably a big part of the reason that people who do the wrong thing, or simply have no notion of right or wrong, are doing so well in so many spheres at the moment. Hopefully the pendulum will swing the other way. I take heed from the kind words that the Dunkers Kulturhus in Helsingorg, Sweden replied to the Guerrilla Girls with:- "We are disappointed with our failure (to be diverse) and are aware of the problem, and are taking steps to address it".
It's not weak to admit a mistake and try to correct it. In fact it's downright pig-headed not to. It seems to me, as a man who visits museums and galleries more than most, that things are becoming considerably more diverse. I've written about, and taken stick for writing about, the feminist avant-garde of the 70s, a recent all female art show at the Whitechapel itself, and Simon Fujiwara's recent project about rebuilding the public image of a woman who suffered a damaging tabloid scandal. I've covered female artists from Mary Heilmann and Etel Adnan to the more well known Georgia O'Keeffe and Maggi Hambling and I've written about artists from as far afield as Lebanon, India, and Mali. I've been able to do this not because I'm a wonderfully modern man (even though, of course, I am) but because curators (in London at least) are making bolder decisions. I believe they're making these bolder decisions because activists like the Guerrilla Girls have highlighted where they've gone wrong in the past.
Sometimes the Guerrilla Girls can seem a bit po-faced but they're not without a sense of humour. They've listed all the cultural institutions that failed to reply and put them on the floor so you can walk all over them. People were doing so when I was there.
There have also been accusations of selling out to the very art world they set out to critique. They've been accused of not moving with the times when it comes to new feminist theories. There have been internal ideological struggles within the group that have led to splinter groups and accusations. It's been messy but then trying to navigate the world (art, real, or both) using a moral compass often is. Though I may not agree with everything they say or do I'm glad they're out there doing it. Now more than ever.