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‘It’s a Corrupt System and It’s Becoming More Corrupt’: The Guerrilla Girls Arrive at the Whitechapel Gallery in London

New show examines bias and discrimination in European museums

Exterior view of Whitechapel Gallery in London, showing" Guerrilla Girls Commission: Is it even worse in Europe?," 2016. DAVID PARRY/PA WIRE

Exterior view of Whitechapel Gallery in London, showing” Guerrilla Girls Commission: Is it even worse in Europe?,” 2016.

DAVID PARRY/PA WIRE

Feminist art activists in furry gorilla masks descended on the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End on Friday as the Guerrilla Girls launched their much-anticipated show, “Is it Even Worse in Europe?”

The exhibition is based on the art collective’s survey of nearly 400 museums in 29 countries in Europe, which suggests that most of the continent’s art institutions are doing a poor job of representing women artists and people of color.

“The numbers are very low, they’re not diverse,” a Guerrilla Girl who goes by the pseudonym Kathe Kollwitz told ARTnews ahead of the opening. “Many museums are trying to play catch up but they have a long way to go because they’re stuck with their collection which they started many years ago and it’s mostly white guys.”

“We want to scare these institutions into being aware and changing their ways,” added another pseudonymous Guerrilla Girl, Frida Kahlo. Members of the group, which has spent the past 30 years exposing gender and race inequities in art, politics, and culture, wear gorilla masks in public and use the names of dead female artists to protect their anonymity and keep the focus on their campaigns.

Guerrilla Girls, Discrimination, 2016. COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

Guerrilla Girls, Discrimination, 2016.

COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

On the Whitechapel façade, pictures of people in gorilla masks grin from the windows alongside a banner that reads: “THE GUERRILLA GIRLS ASKED 383 MUSEUMS ABOUT DIVERSITY. ONLY 1/4 RESPONDED. COME INSIDE AND SEE WHY.

Inside, the results are displayed loudly around one room. A list of the 101 institutions that responded adorns one wall, while another wall is covered with the completed questionnaires, overlaid with vivid posters highlighting the most interesting and controversial answers.

The 282 institutions that either declined to participate in the poll or didn’t reply, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Haus der Kunst in Munich, have been named in a list that is consigned to the floor for visitors to trample on.

One of the most dispiriting findings of the survey was that, of the 101 participating museums, just two have 40 percent or more women artists in their collections. And in 21 museums, women artists account for less than 20 percent of the collections; seven of those are in Spain.

“We did find that some institutions think they’re doing a much better job than they really are,” Frida noted, citing the Ateneum in Helsinki, which reported that it had been acquiring works by female painters since 1861. “Well, the fact of the matter was that when they told us what percentage of their collection was work by women it was only 12 percent!” she scoffed.

Guerrilla Girls, It’s even worse in Europe, 1986. COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

Guerrilla Girls, It’s even worse in Europe, 1986.

COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

The Girls have scrawled pointed comments beneath some answers to underscore discrepancies between the institutions’ claims and the facts. (“We couldn’t resist!” said Kathe.) For instance, when asked if this was the first time they had run stats on diversity, the Manchester Art Gallery in England wrote, “No—we talk about these issues a lot.” A red scribble from the Girls beneath that note replies: “And your collection is 80% male and 85% white!”

Since its formation in 1985, the collective has been needling the art world with eye-catching, witty billboards, posters, stickers, and fliers, naming and shaming museums, galleries, and art magazines about their track record on gender and race equality. Its most famous poster features a nude woman in a gorilla mask reclining in the manner of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814) with the caption: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

Recently the group has taken to task billionaire art collectors who set up private foundations or sit on museum boards and influence exhibition programming to validate their (usually white, male) investments while doing little to redress gender and ethnic imbalances in the canon.

In the survey, several museums voiced concern about the influence of U.S. museum practices in Europe. For example, the Fruitmarket Gallery, in Edinburgh, Scotland, cited growing pressure on British institutions to adopt American models of private and corporate funding. “It’s a corrupt system and it’s becoming more corrupt,” Frida said.

The Guerrilla Girls often fight with healthy doses of humor, so the Greek collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art perhaps had it coming when it declined to fill out their questionnaire on the grounds that artistic merit can be judged without considering issues of identity and bias. “They said art is about quality and when you deal with quality it’s always a level playing field. Well, I mean, what planet do they live on?” Frida asked. “They live on the planet money!”

Guerrilla Girls, Dear Art Collector, 2015. COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

Guerrilla Girls, Dear Art Collector, 2015.

COURTESY THE GUERRILLA GIRLS

The Whitechapel show revisits the Girls’ 1986 poster “It’s Even Worse in Europe,” but turns the statement into a question. Curious to discover whether things had improved in the intervening decades, the group targeted the directors of 383 museums and kunsthallen across Europe, asking about the representation of artists who are female, gender non-conforming, or from Africa, Asia, and South America.

The exhibition doesn’t actually answer its own question as to whether it’s worse in Europe—the size and cultural diversity of the continent makes it impossible to draw overarching conclusions. However, the responses brought into focus particular challenges faced today by museums in different parts of Europe, such as the rise of conservative politics, disparities between East and West, and the growing privatization of the public realm.

When asked what keeps museum directors up at night, two Polish institutions cited, respectively, “political oppression” and “the dangers of growing national self esteem,” reflecting the influence of rising nationalism in Europe rather than the globalization of art.

On the issue of ethnic diversity, several Eastern European museums complained that artists from the region were marginalized in Western Europe, a finding the Guerrilla Girls had not expected. “We were considering artists from outside Europe and the United States as being the ‘other,’ so that was curious,” Frida said.

Only 14 museums had more than 20 artists from outside Europe/America in their collections. Even the host museum didn’t escape criticism on that front. The group noted that only 13 percent of solo shows from 2011 to 2015 at the Whitechapel were with artists from outside Europe and the U.S, although 45 percent of the artists in group shows were from those regions.

In terms of gender equality, the most advanced country was Poland. A poster captioned, “Is It Even Better in Poland?” noted that women artists make up 28 percent of Polish museum collections compared with a European average of 22 percent. Moreover, all the Polish institutions that responded pay honoraria to exhibiting artists and all but one had a woman director.

But some institutions turned the critique back on the Guerrilla Girls, complaining about a U.S.-centric bias to the questions (the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Glasgow, Scotland) or challenging the validity of certain questions to define success or equality (Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna).

“The show is not so much about social science as it is about social activism,” said Frida. “We are just provoking people to think about these issues…we’re not issuing a U.N. report.”

The exhibition runs from October 1 through March 5. From October 4 to 9 the Guerrilla Girls will be running a “complaints department” at Tate Exchange, a new venture by Tate Modern, where members of the public and organizations can debate issues of the day with the artists.

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