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An untitled Guerrilla Girls poster from 2011 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CLAREMONT, Calif. — When I first saw the work of the Guerrilla Girls in high school, I had a similar reaction as when I first read Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: ashamed that something so obvious had to be laid out for me. Of course, societal norms prohibited women from pursuing their artistry to the fullest extent possible in the past, but now, I’d thought, things were different: female artists had solo shows at major museums, and powerful women worked as gallerists, curators, journalists, and tastemakers. But there’s something about seeing the black-and-white numbers presented by the Guerrilla Girls, usually in the form of accessible posters, that’s eye opening and enraging. It’s one thing to have a gauzy concept of past wrongs and present progress, quite another to know just how much the status quo is still upheld today. 

Installation view, ‘Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action’

Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action at the Pomona College Art Museum, curated by Benjamin Feldman, a Pomona senior and the Josephine Bump ’76 curatorial intern, is a small but potent look at the confrontational posters and publications created by the feminist group. Started in 1985 by an anonymous cluster of critics, artists, academics, and museum workers, the Guerrilla Girls have made a long career of critiquing the art world’s male- and Caucasian-centered focus. While the exhibition would benefit from wall labels dating each poster, its setting in an academic context has undoubtedly exposed many students to the continuing existence of troubling imbalances in museums, galleries, and publications.

Guerrilla Girls, “Horror on the National Mall!” (2007) (click to enlarge)

The statistics outlined in the works are staggering. A 1985 poster reports that the average woman artist earned one-third of what the average male artist earned, while another, from as recent a year as 2011, announces that fewer than 4% of artists in the Metropolitan Museum’s modern art section are women, but 76% of the nudes are female. The colorful 2007 mock tabloid Horror on the National Mall!, originally presented in the pages of the Washington Post, lists jaw-dropping numbers: at the time, the creators of art on view at the National Gallery of Art were 98% male and 99.9% white; respective numbers at the National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery were not much better.

A work I’d never seen before, “Token Times” (1995), cut close to the bone despite the fact that it’s 20 years old. I texted a picture of it to a few of my female art world friends and got laughing exclamations of recognition in response to the poster’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of entry-level art world jobs for women. Months before, we’d sent around a New York Times article with statistics for the low numbers of female museum directors, underlining how few women work their way up from entry-level museum jobs into the upper administrative echelon. As detailed in the article, a 2014 report by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that only 24% of institutions with budgets over $15 million have female directors, and these women make 29% less than their male counterparts. In addition, just five of the thirty-three museums with budgets over $20 million have female directors.

Guerrilla Girls posters from 1989 (top) and 1985 (bottom) (click to enlarge)

One of the things that’s appealing about the Guerrilla Girls’ message and the way they broadcast it is that they make clear that everyone in positions of power in the art world bears responsibility for the current state of affairs and can work to improve the situation. It’s easy to think about exhibitions as discrete entities, awarded based on individual merit, timing, or popular appeal, but when one sees the slim numbers of solo museum shows awarded to female artists or their overall slice of gallery representation, the systemic nature of the problem comes into sharp relief. Curators, gallerists, academics, and writers of both genders and at all levels of the career ladder need to collectively work to better represent the demographics of the contemporary world.

The Guerrilla Girls regularly create new posters and host events, such as a program at Pomona in February in association with the show. For 2014 alone, their website lists performances, lectures, and workshops held at 15 venues, including the New York Art Book Fair, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Google Cultural Institute, and various universities. Along with their identifiable graphics, which resist feeling dated due to their simplicity, the educational bent of the group is a key strategy — the more people are informed about the current situation through punchy graphics and memorable statistics, the more they will want to act upon the problem (hopefully).

Installation view, ‘Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action’ (click to enlarge)

As I was waiting to look at a few workbooks near the exhibition exit, I fell into conversation with two female college students curious about the origins of the group. Charmed by the accessible and stingingly funny books, they were shocked by the statistics and the continuing necessity of the group’s work today, just as I had been the first time I saw the Guerrilla Girls’ posters. This type of reaction speaks to the effectiveness of the Guerrilla Girls’ strategy, as outlined by the members themselves:

We try to be different from the kind of political art that is angry and points to something and says ‘This is bad.’ That’s preaching to the converted. We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts — and great visuals — and hopefully convert them.

Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action continues at Pomona College Art Museum (330 N College Ave, Claremont, California) through May 17.

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Jennie Waldow

Jennie Waldow is a student in the art history PhD program at Stanford University. She has previously worked at the Los Angeles Nomadic Division and the Museum of Modern Art, and she received a BA from...

15 replies on “The Guerrilla Girls Are Still Relevant After All These Years”

  1. Women really do themselves a disservice by victimizing the term “women artists”. Succeeding as an artist is the hardest thing in the world for anybody and takes enormous ambition, resilience and LUCK, whether you’re male or female, white or black. By nature males tend to have more ambition and resilience than females, but not always, as with Madonna, Cindy Sherman, Hillary Clinton, Lady GaGa, Mother Theresa, Sarah Silverman, Donna Karan, Marina Abramovic, Cleopatra, Louise Bourgeous. The list goes on. Stop telling women the odds are stacked against them, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody looks at a piece of art and says, wow I really love this painting… wait! it’s made by a woman??? Now I like it less… Some of the most powerful trend-setting curators and gallery dealers in the art world are women, so what’s up with that?

    1. “By nature males tend to have more ambition and resilience than females,” and that is precisely where I stopped listening to you. Where are you getting this information from? What science have you to back this ridiculous, self-serving fact? Are you completely unaware of blind experiments in which, when gender/race/name are made anonymous, MANY more women and PoC are accepted into music schools/scientific journals? Do you live under a rock?

      1. “By nature males tend to have more ambition and resilience than females,”

        “Where are you getting this information from?”

        Kay Hymowitz, WSJ: “The Labor Department defines full-time as 35 hours a week or more, and the “or more” is far more likely to refer to male workers than to female ones. According to the department, almost 55% of workers logging more than 35 hours a week are men. In 2007, 25% of men working full-time jobs had workweeks of 41 or more hours, compared with 14% of female full-time workers. In other words, the famous gender-wage gap is to a considerable degree a gender-hours gap.”

        http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303592404577361883019414296

        Jessi’s comment was overly broad but there are data he or she has access to in pursuing that line of thought

        1. Fascinating. And where in this study attribute the gender wage gap to nature? And, extrapolating from this study, do you mean to imply that black people, Latinas, and other PoC are “by nature” less risilient and ambitious? Additionally, how does resilience and ambition factor into the statistic that men are underrepresented in college retention and enrollment rates? It’s almost….as if it’s NOT by nature, and years of gender/racial oppression and gender norms influence society and how people act. NOT nature.

          I encourage you to read the short essay that the author posted in the first paragraph of this article for a greater understanding of what I’m saying.

          1. If you define nature as ‘natural behavioral patterns’ then yes, the wage gap (in that respect) is by nature.

            Jessi would need to spell out in more detail what he or she means by ambitious and resilient in this context to advance a more meaningful argument. (I had no idea how Sarah Silverman followed Mother Theresa in a list of ambitious, resilient women.)

          2. Nature seems more commonly defined as biological and not behavioral. In fact, sociology and biology are often cited as opposing forces—I think this is pretty well-known.

            Regardless of whether ambition or resilience is more clearly defined, the statement “x gender is more naturally y than z gender” is nearly always problematic, lest it refers to truly natural/biological things (women are naturally shorter than men, men are naturally more prone to colorblindness than women). That particular statement of nature and gender is what I specifically take umbrage with, especially in terms of society/culture/behavior.

        2. The main reason why there are more females that are part-timers is not due to lack of ambition, but because they also have other full time jobs at the same time-child rearing, cook, maid, ect. Most males have not taken up their share of these duties- hense it falls upon the female. When you average this all out, females probably put in around a 100 hour work week vs. a male 40-60 hour one.

          1. I’d like to respond, but not to absurd claims fabricated by one’s imagination. Anything real to give, like stats from the dept of labor?

        3. So discrimination against women in the workplace is the “evidence” that they have less “ambition and resilience” than men? LOL.

    2. “Women really do themselves a disservice by victimizing the term “women artists””

      Women aren’t the ones who made that a negative term.

      “The list goes on. Stop telling women the odds are stacked against them, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

      Its not women who we are telling this to.

    3. ” Nobody looks at a piece of art and says, wow I really love this painting… wait! it’s made by a woman??? Now I like it less… ”

      Wanna bet?

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