In 1985, a group of female artists gathered in New York in an almost superhero manner for the sole purpose of fighting sexism and racism in the art world.
That spring, the Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition displaying international paintings and sculptures; of the 165 artists featured in the collection, only 13 were women. Angered by the lack of representation, a group of female artists banded together to form the “Guerrilla Girls.” At first, the group pursued their mission through physical protests such as plastering shaming posters on streets close to galleries, but in the early 2000s, they began to partner with museums by selling their protest posters.
As museums in recent years have increasingly hosted their artwork exhibitions, the art world has marveled at the success of the Guerilla Girls movement. Besides hosting the exhibition, however, most museums have not committed to actual diversification in their artwork acquisition practices. By doing so, instead of embracing the message of the Guerrilla Girls, these museums have made feminism a spectacle to exploit.
Museums began to partner with the Guerilla Girls after the group created a poster shaming the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s lack of representation of people of color and female artists. The poster depicted a naked woman with the caption “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Displayed on the poster was the statistic “Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” Despite the attention the poster received, the Met took no subsequent action to diversify its collections.
However, after the Met’s public shaming, museums across the world invited the Guerrilla Girls to shame them, asking for similar posters with statistics about their own museums. The statistics at these other museums were just as bad. The Museum of Art of São Paulo hosted a Guerrilla Girls exhibition and publicized that women artists only made up six percent of its collection. On one level, this may seem like these museums are taking an active step forward to acknowledging the bias in their collections, yet more cynically it seems that they are shaming themselves just for the profit and publicity that comes with the Guerilla Girls.
While the Guerilla Girls’ partnership with museums has brought attention to sexism and racism in the art world, minority and women representation is worse than when the group started in the 1980s. In 2005, they remade their famous work, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The new statistic shows that in 2005, the number of female artists in the modern art section had decreased to 3 percent. Their most recent rendition of the poster in 2012 shows that number has increased to 4 percent — a lower number than the 5 percent in 1989.
The continuation of poor female representation despite greater awareness is due to museum inaction. In 2007, as part of a postering campaign, the Guerrilla Girls critiqued the National Gallery of Art. At the time, 98 percent of works on display were by male artists, 99.9 percent of whom were white. Although the National Gallery of Art added 34 works of art by the Guerilla Girls into its collection that year, the acquisition was only made possible by a group of 21 staff members — self-named the Gallery Girls — who made financial contributions to an acquisition fund for the purchase.
While most museums have stalled in diversifying artist representation, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has genuinely championed women’s achievements in visual and performing arts by ensuring its platform only hosts female artists. This past week, for example, the NMWA announced that it would be hosting several works by the Guerrilla Girls in its reinstallation of the permanent collection. NMWA is the only museum that represents the Guerrilla Girls’ feminist work that actually sticks to the mission of representing female artists.
For most museums, protest art has become a form of tokenism: Collecting the Guerrilla Girl’s work has shielded museums from the broader criticism they deserve for underrepresenting women. However, collecting the Guerrilla Girl’s artwork while failing to expand acquisition practices to include more women and artists of color means that both museums and the Guerilla Girls movement have fallen short of real change.
To ensure that artwork acquisition practices progress, the Guerilla Girls need to attach conditions to their artwork exhibitions. These conditions could include requiring museums to dedicate the majority of funds from Guerilla Girl exhibitions to purchasing artworks by women or artists of color. Moreover, the Guerilla Girls should require museums that own their work or host their exhibitions to keep a continuous public tally of female artists compared to male artists and white artists compared to artists of color.
The Guerilla Girls have emboldened many underrepresented artists by coming to their defense and calling out the museums that underrepresented artists cannot afford to protest themselves. However, if Guerrilla Girls are to keep to their mission of advancing the artwork of women and people of color, they need to stop allowing museums to use them as a token of good faith.
Katie O‘Hara is a first-year graduate in art and museum studies. Painting Politics appears online every other Wednesday.