What’s Changed Since the Guerrilla Girls Began Calling Out Art-World Sexism in 1985?
Not as much as we like to pretend, say the Guerilla Girls in an exclusive interview with GARAGE.
Guerrilla Girls at Abrons Art Center, New York, 2015, photo by Andrew Hindrake
“Back in 1985, there was no real art journalism. There were three or four glossy magazines that were trade magazines, and really wrote puff pieces for their advertisers,” says Guerrilla Girls co-founder Frida Kahlo.
That’s not her real name, of course. It’s an alias she adopted as a founder of the first artist-activist collective to completely subvert the art market establishment. The Guerrilla Girls are something of a legend to anti-establishment art history nerds.
Founded by Kahlo and a friend who goes by the alias of Käthe Kollwitz, the group consists of anonymous women in the arts who have adopted the names of deceased, underappreciated women artists. Under their pseudonyms—and the cover of their iconic gorilla masks—the Girls got their start protesting museums and galleries who didn’t represent the work of enough women and artists of color in their exhibitions. Their protests consisted of installations of graphic posters they designed to draw the public’s attention to the staggering statistics on underrepresentation for women artists and artists of color.
“The power in the art world has mostly been white males. They in turn are attracted to work that they can relate to because of their culture and experiences. It's not wrong, it's just limited. The people who buy the art are the same demographic, and the people who write about art can only write about the art that is seen and sold,” said Alice Neel, one of the first anonymous artists recruited to join the Girls, shortly after the group was founded.
Even after almost 35 years, the art world is still reckoning with its failure to address issues of representation and parity. A recent study published on February 11 by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) revealed that the artists whose work is selected to be part of major U.S. museums’ permanent collections are still overwhelmingly white (87%) and male (85%). Findings from the Association of Art Museum Directors’ 2017 report, ‘The Ongoing Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships’, revealed that women hold 48% of museum directorships despite comprising over 60% of museum staff. The women who do hold these directorships make, on average, 73 cents to the dollar of men who are also art museum directors.
“The numbers have maybe gotten a little bit better, but the problem still exists. So the important questions to also ask are about the psychology behind it, the prejudice behind it, the fear behind why women are still, not only in the art world, but everywhere else, not as valued,” continued Neel.
Representation and parity is—slowly, painstakingly—improving for the many artists and art administrators who fall outside the narrow selectors of “white” and “male”. It’s been the public awareness, however, that has undergone the biggest shift in Kahlo and Peel’s lifetime.
“The [public] consciousness has changed. I would say that critics and art historians and even curators agree with that. I don't think anyone any longer would pretend that you can tell the history of art without the voices of all the people in the culture, which includes women artists and artists of color,” said Kahlo.
What hasn’t changed is the concentration of gross wealth at the very top of the proverbial pyramid of the art market, and its impact on public-facing art institutions like museums.
“The [wealthy] art world pretends that it's liberal and progressive. They're kind of hypocritical when they complain about Donald Trump the politician and don't look at the system that they participate in,” said Kahlo, going on to cite Whitney museum director Adam Weinberg’s dismissive response to museum staff in the wake of backlash against the museum’s vice chairman and tear gas manufacturer, Warren Kanders. Kahlo was also quick to mention the institutions that aided the Sacklers in “art-washing” their reputations amidst profiting from the opioid crisis.
“I think there are many people inside museums who would like to change [them],” mused Kahlo, adding,“I don't think I'm telling any tales out of church, but I think there's going to be a lot of protests during the Whitney Biennial. Let's see if the artists who are in the Biennial, do as we often do, we go into a museum and then we try to subvert the situation,” she said. “It'll be interesting to see how they unravel it all,” finished Neel, both likely contemplating their ongoing legacies in a field that’s never quite out of work for them or the numerous artist-activist collectives that have sprung up in their wake.