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Guerrilla Girls
The Guerrilla Girls at the Minneapolis Institute of ArtsCourtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Guerrilla Girls get ready for war on the European art world

The masked art activists talk the Euro art scene’s problem with diversity, being professional complainers and how feminist artists can continue to flourish

The gorilla-masked feminist heroes have waged a war on the male, stale and pale art world that’s spanned three decades: exposing inequality and institutionalised sexism on the walls of galleries and museums across the world. United in frustration, they very publicly called out institutions that showed less than 10 per cent of women artists in 1985. Not much later they assertively asked ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’ in 1989, when responding to the NY space’s disparity between women artist representation (5 per cent) and its number of female nudes (85 per cent). Jump to 2014 and the collective, showing at Pharrell’s G I R L exhibit, asked why women had to be naked to get into music videos, when 99 per cent of men involved were clothed. They’ve drawn comparison between the diversity of employees in the bus and truck industries with that of artists in New York galleries, and called for the drop of the firey, emotional Estrogen Bomb on the men shaping a world for one tiny demographic.

The art industry seems pretty slow to change: though we’ve seen a rise in female-only exhibitions and feminism become part of the mainstream popular culture narrative, recent findings by the group saw that a selection of galleries were only showing 20 per cent of women artists – pitiful, in 2016. In this kind of environment, it's terrifying that the narrative could totally miss out the amazing work of women, LGBT, non-gender conforming and non-Western artists, creating an eschewed vision of an art scene that totally falls flat compared to the beauty and diversity that's really out there. 

Now, the Guerrilla Girls are coming over to London for their first UK-dedicated show at the Whitechapel Gallery, asking the question: is it even worse in Europe? The art activists have collated research from galleries and museums across the continent to examine the representation of women, non-gender conforming people and Africa, Asia and South America-based artists within the institutions.

Speaking under her pseudonym, Frida Kahlo detailed the expanse of their intersectional feminist mission.

What’s your show itinerary looking like for Europe? 

Frida Kahlo: At the end of August we’re going to Cologne, Germany and we’re doing a project at the Ludwig museum that’s part of their 40th anniversary: a video will investigate diversity there. We’ll also be doing a large banner that questions the new proliferation of private art museums all over the world, asking the question: can we really trust art collectors to write the history of art? Then, we’re going on to Paris and we’re publishing a book called the Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria, looking at the vibrator and how it’s connected to the way women were medically treated for hysteria. Next, we’re going to be in a symposium with some other feminist groups, like Ukrainian feminist group Femen. At the end of September we’re coming back to London and opening the Whitechapel show. It’s examining a question that we asked back in the eighties about the representation of women: is it even worse in Europe?  

We sent questionnaires out to 40 different art institutions throughout Europe asking them to tell us about diversity in their collections and their shows. We want to re-investigate what the situation is like. After that show we’ll be in residency in the Tate Modern at the exchange department, where we open our own complaints department. Anyone visiting the museum can come into the complaints department and complain about anything they want to – art, politics, anything.  

Where did that idea for a complaints department come from?

Frida Kahlo: Our crazy little heads! We are professional complainers. When we started 30 years ago we had no idea that this would be a life sport – we were just pissed off. We did a couple of things that started people talking and we kept following it – in a way, letting our critique of the world of culture and the patriarchy evolve. Today we’re professional complainers where institutions ask us to come and criticise things – it’s fun.

What stage are you at in your research of European galleries and museums?

Frida Kahlo: We’re compiling it now, looking through it and trying to figure out what aspect of the statistics we want to focus on, and the individual comments we found interesting. We sent a letter to 400 institutions, and about a 100 answered us back. The research is based on those responses, however, the 300 institutions that did not respond are going to be part of the show too...

Whether they like it or not? 

Frida Kahlo: Right. The institutions that didn’t write us back, who didn’t care to be part of this inquiry – they’re going to be very prominently displayed in the show.

“Everything that’s wrong with income and equality in the larger world, has always been wrong with income and equality in the art world” – Frida Kahlo

Of those who did respond, are you seeing any patterns?

Frida Kahlo: Well it’s varied, you know some museums are very new, some are charged with an obligation to show the art of their region. Some of the others want to become international or global, but when you look at their exhibition records and collections, they’re not. So what’s the difference between being diverse and wanting to be diverse? Europe is not a homogenous mass. We find different situations in Spain than in Serbia.  

So entrenched political and social systems are coming into play?

Frida Kahlo: Absolutely, and the art market is built on a really hyper capitalist model, and I would say that, really, it’s connected to the financial establishment. Europe may think of themselves as liberal, but the art market functions as conservative and capitalist. The art world is unregulated in the U.S; it’s an ultra conservative system that operates with the facade of being liberal. Everything that’s wrong with income and equality in the larger world, has always been wrong with income and equality in the art world. It’s nothing new.

And you’re also exploring the representation of non-binary artists, which is so important in the contemporary art dialogue.

Frida Kahlo: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting which institutions were able to answer that, and which institutions said that they would never even think of asking that question of their exhibiting artists. That’ll be interesting to see and to consider. 

You’re also looking into artists from Africa and South America, how does this play in?

Frida Kahlo: This is going back 30 years: in 1985 the Museum of Modern Art opened up after renovation with a big show, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. There were close to 200 artists – only 17 of the artists were women. Shocking. Fewer were artists of colour, or artists that were not from Western Europe or the Americas. We thought it was unbelievable, to call it an ‘international survey’ when it was really just Western. After 30 years of telling everyone that you can’t write a history of art without all of the voices of the world, otherwise it’s just a history of power, we’re coming back to that question and asking how diverse, international and global they are.

How different are the art worlds of Europe and America? 

Frida Kahlo: The art world in the US is market driven. Most museums in the US are not-for-profit, but private. Few are government run, which means they’re run by a group of wealthy donors. Now that art collecting has become a form of investment, there are a lot of conflicts of interest inside of American museum boards. You have art investors making decisions about what the museum collects and shows, which is pretty ethically questionable. In Europe, you’ve had more history of public museums, evolving from royal collections, or part of the government. They have to be a little more representative, however, we’re seeing those American museum practices spreading to Europe. Money from donors is a trend, so is this really the way to go?

There’s also a trend of private museums all across the world, in Asia and the Middle East too. They front the money they get from tremendous tax deductions, they structure the museum, hire and fire who they want, show whatever they want. We ask the larger question; is that really the way we want culture to be written and determined? We don’t let the history of film, literature or music, be written by the wealthiest members of our society. Those are mass forms that are more determined and consumed by everyone. Do these galleries really tell the history of culture, or do they tell the history of their owners’ money and power?  

“After 30 years of telling everyone that you can’t write a history of art without all of the voices of the world, otherwise it’s just a history of power, we’re coming back to that” – Frida Kahlo

It’s sad that diverse art history could be so easily erased.

Frida Kahlo: If you examine the collector class, they’re very homogenous – even across ethnic groups, they’re all entrepreneurial people of wealth, and they’re usually men. And when there are women, they’re usually women connected to the portraits of men, with some exceptions of course. It’s a very small group to be writing the visual history of the world. 

So why is now the time to challenge this?

Frida Kahlo: Part of it is that there’s institutional interest in our work in Europe. We sort of go with that, we accept invitations that come to us, and a lot are from Europe. We started thinking about the larger questions and the idea of private museums came up over the last few months. The Ludwig museum started private collection by Peter Ludwig, and he gave it to the city of Cologne. We thought of that as a model for contemporary art museums and how that’s then morphed into completely private museums. It’s been very organic.

Do you see the art world stepping towards change? 

Frida Kahlo: We’re professional complainers, we identify things that we think are unfair, and it’s up to our audience whether they want to pressure for change. Change rarely just happens on its own. It usually comes about from some resistance and some pressure. We’ll see.

Turning the lens backwards, what about the feminist art sphere – what can it do better?

Frida Kahlo: Well they have to keep up their resistance, and they have to keep the issues alive, and they’ve got to count and examine their institutions. They also have to be intersectional. They have to speak of where gender, ethnicity and economic privilege intersects, and realise how it affects the art world. Intersectionality is so important to feminist critique. 

Is It Even Worse in Europe will show at the Whitechapel Gallery, London from 1 October to 5 March 2017 as part of the autumn programme.