Talking Art World Inequality With The Guerrilla Girls

If you wander onto the fifth floor of the Tate Modern’s new building, the Switch House, this weekend, you’ll find a makeshift ‘Complaints Department’. An initiative devised by feminist activist artists the Guerrilla Girls, it’s a place for the public to pick up pen and paper and lodge a complaint against anything from institutional sexism, through to rising rent prices or racist border policies. It’s a place within a monolithic art institution where anyone can come off the street and dispute the status quo.
Art is a realm in which, historically, convention has been challenged. And yet our art galleries and museums have always picked and chosen who it is that’s allowed to do the challenging. As of 2015, Art News magazine had New York's Museum of Modern Art’s female head count down at just 7% of total works on display. It also noted that, “Of all the solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou since 2007, only 16% went to women” and that the “Tate Modern granted women artists solo exhibitions only 25% of the time” from 2007 to 2015. Clearly, the problem of gender bias is alive and well in the halls of galleries that call themselves “modern”. The Guerrilla Girls have been campaigning against gender and racial inequality in the art world since 1985, when they would walk into galleries in their native New York and count the artworks shown by women artists and artists of colour. This led to what is perhaps the group’s most famous image, a poster depicting a nude woman wearing a gorilla mask (compulsory attire for any member of the anonymous Guerrilla Girls collective), with a slogan that reads: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In a 2012 replica, the Guerrilla Girls had surveyed the Metropolitan Museum of Art again, and the figure for female artists had dropped to 4%. Sadly, little had changed.
These pieces are exemplary of the graphic posters the Guerrilla Girls have been producing for over three decades now; customarily witty and boisterous, they present the facts of discrimination straightforwardly and, often, with statistics. These hallmarks ring true for the work on show at their current exhibition, a solo show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery (a gallery, incidentally, with a great record of representing women artists). For the exhibition, the Guerrilla Girls posted questionnaires about representation to the heads of almost 400 European galleries in order to create an up-to-date look at gender and racial representation across the continent. To find out more about the group’s guerrilla tactics, Refinery29 sat down with two founding members, Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz (each member takes the pseudonym of a famous female artist) at their Tate Modern Complaints Department. From behind their masks, the two women shared their thoughts on what museums and galleries need to do to better address gender and race, as well as how their collective has evolved over time.
How did the idea of the Complaints Department come about, and why did it appeal?
Frida: We were asked by the Tate to come up with a project that would fit in with the idea of exchange – somewhere that people can come and talk about things or debate. We thought ‘a lot of people come to a museum to appreciate art, so why not give them a space where they can complain?' A lot of art is about complaining. Art should be about discontent and unease.
Käthe: The Guerrilla Girls are always labelled as a bunch of complainers. And people are right, we are complaining! But we like to think of ourselves as unique, creative complainers. And we want other people to complain with us, too.
What kind of complaints have you been receiving? What kind of complaint has resonated the most?
Frida: We had a group of disabled artists come in yesterday and talk about how they feel more discriminated against in terms of gender than disability. They wrote on the wall about a show they were in where only the men had their names recorded on the publicity. It was an attempt to give an opportunity to a marginalised group and then within that opportunity there was a gender-based bias going on...
That makes me think about how, since you started doing what you do, the word intersectionality has come into much wider use, and now feminists aren’t looking at women as one group but looking at how race or sexuality or disability plays into that womanhood. Is this something you’ve had to adjust your work to account for?
Käthe: The word wasn’t around when we started out but I think we were always intersectional in our membership and also as feminists who believe in fighting for human rights for everybody. It’s about more and more rights for everyone in the whole world – women, people of colour – and not just art but other areas of pop culture and politics. Feminism is one of the great rights movements of our era, along with civil rights, LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter. We see all of these movements as intertwined. Frida: One of the first posters we did was about how difficult it was for black women to have shows in New York. And in our early books we dealt with artists who were gender nonconforming. So I agree that intersectionality has been functioning in our work for a long time.
Dear Art Collector, 2015, courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls
The humour has also been there since the beginning . Often what you're doing is “auditing” galleries and presenting statistics, which is fundamentally quite unsexy. Or as you put it, “complaining”. Was there ever a conversation about how to engage people?
Käthe: We were trying to come up with ideas that would be contemporary and break through people’s preconceived notions about art. We used advertising and graphics techniques, facts and humour, in a new way to change people’s minds. We always wanted to do something unforgettable each time – which I’m not sure we did but we tried. There have been lots of issues we wanted to do something about that we haven’t come up with an idea for yet, but might in the future. We’ve moved on in what we tackle – Hollywood, or music videos, for example – but we always go back to the art world. With your anonymity – you might have had people say to you over the years, 'Wouldn’t it be more effective to put your face and name to this?' or 'Why are you hiding behind a mask?' What do you say to those people?
Frida: It doesn’t really matter anymore who we are because we represent a certain attitude. Early on we hid our identities quite honestly to protect ourselves and our careers; we were criticising the professional world that we wanted to feed us. It was a great strategy though because it allowed us to make a more collective complaint, represent a larger group of women than our individual selves. And the work is wonderful and strong on its own but it is also carried by this suspicion of ‘who could they be?’ It helped with publicity, but as I say, I don’t think anyone cares now.
Are you still recruiting new members?
Käthe: We’ve never been totally open to new members. Over 55 people have been members of our group over the years, but it’s only ever relatively small at any one time. If we get too small, we invite people in. We’ve always been very diverse in age and in background.
What are your meetings like, both now and in the early days?
Käthe: In the early days we had meetings every 28 days. We had meetings in New York at our studios or our workplaces... the founding meeting was held at Frida’s loft in Manhattan. Now we do a lot of meetings on Skype. Frida: First it was long-distance phone calls, then it was fax machines, now it’s the internet.
Photographed by Andrew Hindraker.
To bring the conversation back to what you’re up to in London right now: You have a show on at Whitechapel Gallery, can you explain a bit more what the show is about?
Frida: When we were invited to do a show on our archives we decided to revisit a poster that we made early on. It said: “It’s even worse in Europe” and was based on anecdotal experiences of women artists in Europe. We sensed 25 years ago that representation of women in galleries here is worse, which we always found surprising because galleries here are public, whereas galleries in the U.S. are private. We thought ‘let’s see what’s changed in Europe’, so we sent out 400 questionnaires to galleries and museums to see what they’re thinking about – in their own words – in terms of diversity, funding and gender... Issues we believe need tackling in order to tell the whole story of art. We got a 100 responses and made a show out of the findings.
What were the findings?
Käthe: At first we thought we’d base it all on statistics, but in the end we decided to let these institutions speak for themselves. We had asked them some very penetrating questions about diversity so sometimes they were being official, tying to make it sound better, sometimes more honest. We put a lot of their statements on the wall. On the floor we have a big banner you can walk on of all the people that didn’t respond – you can literally tread on them. One institution said: “Women’s art has always been important to us since 1861” then later when we asked the same institution [Ateneum, Helsinki] how many women were in the collection today and it was 12%. Frida: We found that Poland had more museums run by women. We asked museums what their biggest challenges were and some responded that it was a growing sense of nationalism within their cultural institutions. We asked the question ‘does Western Europe marginalise Eastern Europe?’ and the answer was often 'yes'. These were all interesting trends to come out of it. Käthe: We also asked if the bad behaviour of U.S. museums was polluting Europe. By which we mean how museums in the U.S. are now controlled by boards of trustees who are super-wealthy art collectors with a huge influence on what the museums can collect and exhibit. The only museum here who said ‘no’ to this question was the Guggenheim Bilbao – and that’s an American museum.

It makes sense to ask here, I think, how much do you think has changed in the art world since you started out?

Frida: A few things we can take for granted: No one again can ever say that the artwork of women and people of colour doesn’t rise to the level of quality necessary to be shown in museums. We know that’s not true and that it is the code for discrimination. And I think everyone realises that you can’t tell the story of art history without including all the voices with that culture. No one would dispute that now. People used to argue about that. What we didn’t realise is how tokenism would be used to make it look like an institution was taking care of things; they’d invite one female artist, one trans artist, one artist of colour and think the problem [of representation] was solved. What’s the Guerrilla Girls’ take on tokenism?
Frida: We’re of the opinion that tokenism is part of the problem, not the solution. There’s a crushing glass ceiling for female artists and artists of colour. If you look at the top echelons of success in the art world, particularly concerning money – women and artists of colour are not up there yet. They don’t get solo shows, major acquisitions, monographs, books, and they don’t get taught to kids in schools. Income inequality is also a huge problem; women and artists of colour earn on average about 12-17% of what white male artists do. Most of the money and opportunities go to white males, because the art market has not kept up with educational institutions in terms of a consciousness of how bias works. And the art market is run by a lot of super-wealthy people who tend to be similar in lots of ways... and we shouldn’t let them tell us what art history is about. A final question: If women and people of colour are more economically disadvantaged generally, can the art world really lead the way in terms of readdressing that balance, or does it need to follow a change in the wider world?
Käthe: Art institutions certainly can. Public money should represent the public responsibly. The art world is falling behind [the world]. It likes to think of itself as avant-garde but actually it’s behind. It’s always been behind. The art world cannot lead the way. But activism can. The Guerrilla Girls' Complaints Department will be running until Sunday the 9th of October. Their show at the Whitechapel Gallery, 'Is It Even Worse In Europe?', is on until March 2017.

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