LONDON — The Guerrilla Girls strike again. The Whitechapel Gallery recently commissioned the feminist collective to create a new artwork for the gallery, resulting in an exhibition. Is it even worse in Europe? resurrects the 1986 Guerilla Girls campaign “It’s Even Worse in Europe” by conducting an up-to-date survey on gender and racial inequality in European art institutions.
Earlier last year the collective distributed a questionnaire to 383 European museum directors. The Guerilla Girls went straight to the point, asking, among other questions, the percentage of artworks by female, African, Asian, South Asian, South American, and “gender non-conforming” artists in the museums’ collections.
The nature of the questions has changed little since the anonymous American collective started to challenge the art world’s inequity in the 1980s, reporting to the public facts and numbers about the domination of white male artists in the art world. The current show is just another confirmation of how slowly changes are taking place on the matter.
The foreword to the survey, shared on a poster in the exhibition, reads:
The Guerilla Girls focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair. Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors. Unless museums and kunsthalles show art as diverse as the cultures they claim to represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.
Roughly one fourth of the contacted institutions responded — 101, to be precise. A full list of those that didn’t reply or refused to participate has been placed on the floor, for visitors to step on. The replies, arranged in posters around one room of the gallery, are insightful of the current make-up of collections at European institutions. Predictably, the figures are not encouraging: among the museums that did reply, for instance, only two have 40% or more women artists in their collections, while 21 have fewer than 20%.
A less expected find is that the majority of European museums don’t even keep statistics on how many of their works are by underrepresented populations. This is worrying, as it reveals a general lack of self-awareness.
As much as the questionnaire sheds light on pressing and relevant issues, some of its premises have limits. Asking museums about the numbers of works by female artists and minorities in their collections is certainly necessary to bring attention to and keep the pressure on the topic, but it’s definitely not enough. Acquiring such artworks is relatively easy; effectively communicating them, creating relevant narratives around them, is much harder. A recent example is Tate Modern’s major extension, which has pushed the museum to take a more inclusive and fair approach in displaying its collection, increasing the number of pieces by non-Western artists. However, if these curatorial decisions have honored the intention of giving exposure to overlooked artists — thus rethinking the modernist canon — the operation at times has resulted in an endless succession of artworks with no cohesive narrative.
On the one hand, the Guerilla Girls, 30 years later, are still reminding us that museums have overdue issues to address. On the other, we need to continue pushing the conversation around inclusive representation in a more nuanced direction — one that not only considers who institutions are representing, but also how.
Guerrilla Girls: Is it even worse in Europe? continues at Whitechapel Gallery (77 –82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX) through March 5.