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Whitechapel Gallery Guerrilla Girls Commission Is
Whitechapel Gallery Guerrilla Girls Commission: Is it even worse in Europe? 2016Photography David Parry/PA Wire, courtesy the Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls critique 383 European art institutions

Opening tomorrow, the activist group’s exhibition ‘Is it worse in Europe’ surveys the diversity of European galleries and museums

Today, the Guerrilla Girls’ Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz unveiled their first UK show, Is it even worse in Europe? at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

The exhibition, which publicly opens tomorrow, is a survey of answers the activist group received from 400 questionnaires sent to 383 European museum directors of institutions focusing on contemporary and modern art. Their goal was to map out the diversity within them – particularly in regards to sex and race. Some of the 14 questions included were What percentage of artists (not works) in your collection are women?, How many women have had one person exhibitions at your institution over the past 5 years? and How many people in your collection and/or exhibition program are gender non-conforming?

Of the institutions contacted, only a quarter, or 101, were returned answered, all of which have been posted on the walls of the Archive Gallery for visitors to read. For those who didn’t respond, their names have been included on the floor where visitors are encouraged to trample across them.

Founded in New York in the 80s, the Guerrilla Girls began exposing and challenging art world racism and sexism when it was extremely rare to have artists of colour or women artists showing work. This exhibition is a play on their 1986 poster It's even worse in Europe, which Kahlo says was “anecdotal” at the time as they hadn’t done intensive-enough research to prove that Europe’s art institutions were even less diverse than their American counterparts.

Fast forward and they finally have had the chance to. Speaking today, Kollwitz said that while it began as a statistical investigation it evolved “when we read what people wrote, we really realised we had to let them speak for themselves, because what they said was, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes fantastic, sometimes... was it even truthful? And we thought the comments were so interesting that better for us to divide them into pieces and make their own comments on it and just showcase what all these different people said.” She added, “We don't know why the people that didn't respond didn't respond. Are they worse? Were they scared?”

“Our work has always been about trying to transform the system rather than just point our fingers at it and say this is bad” – Frida Kahlo

They also raised concerns about art world hierarchy and power. “More and more super rich art collectors are controlling museums, they're opening their own museums but even in public institutions they're exerting influence and that never really used to be the case. We have kind of gone back to the old system of kings, queens, and emperors,” said Kollwitz, adding that they wanted to know if institutions were feeling this pressure. Overall, funding was stated as a major worry for most surveyed, and out of all the institutions, it was found that Poland was “doing the best” when it came to diversity within its walls.

Kahlo, who dubbed the activist group “creative complainers” rather than “social scientists”, explained, “our work has always been about trying to transform the system rather than just point our fingers at it and say this is bad”. She added that the exhibition was about creating a dialogue – the reason they decided to title the show with a question. They hope that the questionnaires have prompted the institutions surveyed to start dialogues within themselves that they might not have thought of previously.

All the answers have been published in full in books available to read in the Archive Gallery. A live Q&A is taking place at 3pm tomorrow and will be streamed on Whitechapel Gallery’s Facebook page.

Is it worse in Europe, co-curated by Nayia Yiakoumaki, runs until 5 March 2017 at Whitechapel Gallery. From 4 – 9 October, the Guerilla Girls will lead a week-long public project at Tate Modern called Complaints Department