STRIKING AT SEXISM IN THE ART WORLD
IN the back streets of the Soho district, guerrilla warfare is taking place. The target: white patriarchal thinking of the New York art world. The agitators: a group of women veiled by gorilla masks who call themselves `The Guerrilla Girls: Conscience of the Art World.' Their weaponry: posters that bristle with bold graphics, sarcasm, and statistics on discrimination against women artists and artists of color. The Guerrilla Girls - a band of anonymous artists whose membership figure is unknown - are fighting for the elimination of sexism and racism in the art world. During the interviewing process, members insisted upon maintaining individual anonymity. In Guerrillaesque fashion, they required this interview procedure: All inquiries were to be left on the office answering machine; members returned calls at unknown days and times.Skip to next paragraph
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The embryonic stage of this grass roots organization took seed from an intimate circle of N.Y. women artists who shared a mounting grievance over their experiences in the art world - in particular, the low numbers of women represented in exhibitions and shows. The specific event that launched these women into Guerrilla Girl warfare was the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 blockbuster exhibit `International Survey of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture.' Of 165 artists represented, 19 were women.
One member discussed the political setting surrounding their birth: ``During the Reagan years, we really felt a lot of social progress across the board had slipped. Suddenly we were back in a situation which predated the women's movement, where women artists and artists of color were hardly visible at all. When we actually started collecting statistics, they were appalling. So we felt that we had to find a method appropriate for the 80s.
The spring following MoMA's exhibit, a bold-face-typed poster - mysteriously signed `THE GUERRILLA GIRLS: Conscience of the Art World' - appeared along the walls of the East Village district. With a bracketed list of 42 prominent male artists, it asked a simple question: `WHAT DO THESE ARTISTS HAVE IN COMMON?' and gave a simple answer: `THEY ALL ALLOW THEIR WORK TO BE SHOWN IN GALLERIES THAT SHOW NO MORE THAN 10% WOMEN OR NONE AT ALL.'
In time, the Guerrilla Girls moved their hit-and-run street campaign to the Soho district and added more bite to their message. A poster surfaced in report card format, listing galleries and their `progress report' of two years. Under `remarks' came a saucy list of responses, such as: `underachiever,' `not paying attention,' and `doesn't follow directions.'
Within their five year history the group has produced 30 posters. All have exclusively appeared along the walls of New York art districts.
Over the years, members have conducted interviews with dozens of publications and have publicly appeared - a la gorilla masks - in panel discussions and in lecture halls of universities and museums around the country. Coast-to-coast exposure has produced a rippling effect on the birth of other women artists political groups. Some of them have even cloned the `Guerrilla Girl' name and imagery, while others have chosen alternative routes. Says Marcia Tucker, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, ``I think they are telling the art world things it doesn't want to know. Certainly the major museums must know on some level that what they do does not represent the actual composition of the art community. In my experience, over thirty years of being in this field, there are certainly as many women working as men - and there are at least as many interesting women as men.''
The press liason for the group, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds, ``I don't know if they thought they were going to make a change, but they wanted to poke fun at the problems and keep a sense of humor about the whole thing - and it's been a spectacular success.''
Some New York gallery directors also concede that the Guerrilla Girls are influencing the landscape of the art world.
``I think they're the innovators in starting a movement to get women and minorities into galleries that have not shown them before,'' says Eugenia Foxworth of Soho 20, a cooperative women's gallery.
Bill Arning of White Columns believes the Guerrilla Girls have done a lot of good work. ``There's a lot of peculiarity about the numbers when people percentage out who gets shown and who doesn't. It's helpful to have someone pointing that out. I think they have made a real difference.''