In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition entitled An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. Of the 169 artists involved, only 13 were women. Its curator, Kynaston McShine, told the press that any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink “his” career. Enraged by this, a dedicated group of artists founded the Guerrilla Girls, whose mission ever since has been to expose racism and sexism in the art world through the use of activism, posters, publications and humour. Famed for their use of gorilla masks and pseudonyms after famous women artists, co-founder and press director, ‘Kathe Kollwitz’ kindly agreed to an interview.
You regularly name and shame curators, collectors, directors and trustees who are either corrupt or underrepresent women and artists of colour. But who are some of the art world professionals you admire?
There are many great curators out there who care about these issues. One of our favorites is in Spain, the fearless feminist Xabier Arakistain, a great supporter of women artists. The Tate Modern London, The Moderna Museet in Sweden and even MoMA have women’s initiatives now.
Have members of the Guerrilla Girls ever been arrested for their activities?
We’ve been chased but never caught!
Given that you call upon the art world to be transparent, shouldn’t the GGs be transparent too? Perhaps by revealing your own demographics for example?
Our anonymity is one of the secrets of our success. It keeps the focus on our work, not who we are as individuals. But the fact that we cannot reveal the identities of our members is a drawback, as you imply above. We can’t divulge much about who we are, but we can say that over the years more than 50 women have come in and out of the group, some for a week, some for decades, and our members have been from different backgrounds and ethnicities. We’ve also been diverse in age, and in level of art world success.
Besides your posters and publications, how do the GGs finance their projects?
We get paid for doing talks and workshops at museums and universities, and we sell our books and posters. We don’t apply for grants or solicit donations. We’d rather have people support us by buying a poster. Then we get something and they get something in return.
Will guys ever be allowed to join the ranks of the GGs?
We’ve had transgendered members, but no biological males. There are so many male feminists today and often men ask to join. I’m sure it will happen eventually.
In your new and updated version of the Guerrilla Girls’ Art Museum Activity Book, you credit the actions and comments of MoMA curator Kynaston McShine for starting off the Guerrilla Girls. Has McShine ever contacted you since? Has anyone else you’ve targeted later approached or reconciled with you?
That’s a great question. We have never heard from McShine, and have never received intel from any of our moles about what he thinks of the whole thing. We have heard from critics like the New York Times’ Roberta Smith who told us that she wasn’t aware how little she wrote about women artists until we posted statistics on her coverage.
How should museums avoid conflicts of interest with their trustees?
The art world and the art market really suck. Both are full of poseurs, snobs, insider traders, and crooks. The art market is pretty much unregulated. In fact, it has been described as the 4th largest black market in the world, after drugs, guns and diamonds. It’s the playground of the 1% who manipulate prices and tell the rest of us what museums should collect. Museums are overseen by a board of trustees consisting mostly of wealthy businessmen who donate money and artworks and get huge tax deductions. Museum newsletters are full of photos of these trustees at museum functions and bios of their illustrious careers, that is, until they go to jail for price fixing or running their companies into the ground. Trustees sit on acquisition committees that help the curators decide what art to collect. Curators don’t really need help figuring this out, but they need trustees’ money to get the art. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the system is ripe for corruption since collectors can promote acquisitions of work by artists they own, and that in turn makes their private collections more valuable. There should be rules to prevent these kinds of conflicts of interest or insider trading, just like in other industries. Also, No More Cookie Cutter Collections of Art That Costs The Most. Convince art collectors their collections are inferior without work by women and people of color. Make sure your favorite museum casts a wider net and collects the whole story of our culture.
Would you ever sell the works you’ve exhibited at museum or galleries (such as those you exhibited at the 2005 Venice Biennale)? Will we ever see a GG poster at auction?
We haven’t sold any of our large banners, but we sell smaller poster versions of them. Works of ours appeared at auction once many years ago when a bunch GG posters someone had purchased were auctioned at Sotheby’s. We protested outside.
Will the GGs target unpaid internships at museums and galleries?
We really should run some stats on that. Plus, museum directors now get millions a year, while almost all the other employees are underpaid.
And finally what GG projects or events should we be looking forward to?
More creative complaining. More facts, humor and fake fur! Look for Guerrilla Girls’ projects in Krakow, Recife, Germany and Switzerland. Plus, we’re trying to come up with new work around the election and global women’s issues.
The official website of the Guerrilla Girls