The Guerrilla Girls exposed discrimination in the art world, but did anyone listen?

By Ally Faughnan


The issue of discrimination is still extremely pertinent within the art world, with prejudicial treatment of women and minority artists permeating the industry. In response to this, the feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls began creating works to address the issue of underrepresentation head on. Their particular collection of works from 1985 to 1990, titled Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, provides a shocking exposé on the 1980s art world. However, the relevancy of this campaign within the art world today shows that, although there has been some developments in making art museums more representative, there is still a lot of room for improvement.


Guerrilla Girls (1985) How Many Women Artists Had One-Person Exhibitions In NYC Art Museums Last Year?


Discrimination towards female artists has been a continuous issue, centred around the lack of representation and recognition they have received in comparison to male artists. This problem within large arts organisations is laid out on the table in How Many Women Artists Had One-Person Exhibitions in NYC Art Museums Last Year? This piece was originally produced in 1985 as part of the Guerrilla Girls’ thirty-piece poster collection in response to the 1984 International Survey of Painting and Sculpture exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art. This survey showed that only 10% of the 169 artists included were female and this work highlights that only the Modern, out of four major NYC museums, held a one-person exhibition showcasing a female artist. Not acceptable then and definitely not acceptable now, the Guerrilla Girls highlighted the internal discrimination within large organisations to show that the issue of underrepresentation needs to be tackled.


Following a resurgence of the Guerrilla Girls Talk Back collection from 2014, the activist group reproduced the same poster, but with updated data from 2015. The evidence showed that the Guggenheim, Metropolitan and Whitney museums still only held one female solo exhibition, with the Modern doing little better, hosting two. With the issue of discrimination towards women still permeating major centres of art, whether deliberate or not, it questions whether the Guerrilla Girls expose was able to make any real impact on the art scene.


As a group of activist artists, the Guerrilla Girls claim they are aiming to reinvent feminism and stating they “use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture”. Using the medium of posters to satirically simplify complex issues of discrimination into short, bold statements is a visually direct and effective way to portray their message. However, this presents a question: are these statistics more shocking in 1985 or 2015? What changes have been made to tackle these issues and what can we do in 2019 to improve the art world? The Guerrilla Girls' work not only address the progression, or lack of, equal opportunities for female artists but they also act as a significant reminder that this issue is still ongoing. Illuminated by their work, it is evident that despite attempts to increase representation of female artists, discrimination is still rife amongst art museums.


Guerrilla Girls (1985) Women In America Earn Only 2/3 Of What Men Do


Even with the efforts made by institutions to equalise representation of female artists in museums, the issue of equal pay is another problem needed to be tackled. The inability to close the gender pay gap, highlighted through the work Women In America Earn Only 2/3 Of What Men Do, is an issue that transcends the art world. However, focusing on the fact that women artists only earned on average 1/3 of what male artists did in the 1980s, in comparison to modern reports, exposes that this issue has only made minor steps to improvement.


The Association of Art Museum Directors released their gender gap report on 22 March 2017, highlighting The Ongoing Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships. Depicting from their survey, where 47.6% of art museum directors were women, showed that “on average, female directors earned 73 cents for every dollar that male directors earned”. In comparison to the 2014 report, this also showed that “at these largest museums, female directors earn 71 cents on average for every dollar earned by male directors". The minor increase pays little significance to the fact that discrimination towards female art museum directors is still apparent, as they earn on average under 3/4 of what men do in the same position. While the Guerrilla Girls' statement generalises all women artists, this evidence shows that there has only been minor improvement and there is still major discrepancy and discrimination amongst high-level employment in the art sector.


The reception of these artworks also highlight another issue regarding discrimination within art museums. The New York Times writer Roberta Smith published a favourable piece in 1990 titled Waging Guerrilla Warfare Against the Art World, claiming that “whether they have sparked imaginations or embarrassment, the group has undeniably helped change the art-world climate, admittedly in a time when society as a whole has been changing”. Writing at the end of the twentieth century, Smith's depiction of societal change came at a time of third-wave feminism, standing up for a movement that gained harsh criticisms throughout the mid-twentieth century. However, the contributions by the Guerrilla Girls did add momentum to the feminist movement, even just by questioning the inequalities amongst institutions and increasing public consciousness. Therefore, despite the supposed efforts made to close the gender pay gap, as well as improve female representation in art museums, it cannot be denied that whether or not they were being heard by big names in the art world, people were listening.


Guerrilla Girls (1988) At Last! Museums Will No Longer Discriminate Against Women And Minority Artists


The Guerrilla Girls' campaign targeted gender inequality, as well as prejudice towards artists of colour. Ironically stating At Last! Museums Will No Longer Discriminate Against Women And Minority Artists, they recalled on the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, enforcing institutions to comply with civil rights laws in order to receive federal funds. The claim “THEY NEED YOU NOW!” mocks the injustice of women and artists of colour finally being accepted into the art world, but only to financially uphold the institutions that once discriminated against them.


The anonymity of the Guerrilla Girls, wearing ape-like masks to conceal their members’ identity, also acts as a political statement in itself. These masks aim to resist the stereotypes engrained against women and protesting in a collective movement created a crusade against the injustice of discrimination, without the fear that members will be judged individually. Although it should not be the case that individuals feel they cannot stand up for their rights without protecting their identity, this only further shows that the art world is still not fully impartial towards the issue of discrimination against gender and minority groups.


It is undeniable that discrimination is still an issue in the art world, particularly in large museums. Illuminated through the Guerrilla Girls' collection Guerrilla Girls Talk Back from the 1980s, it is evident that problems of underrepresentation of female artists, the gender pay gap and discrimination towards minority artists are still not fully resolved forty years later. Considering that only one major NYC museum mounted a solo exhibition of a female artists work in 1985, compared to data showing NYC museums to hold one or two female solo exhibitions in 2015, it is evident that there has only been minor improvements to becoming more representative. Similarly, with the issue of the gender pay gap barely closing by a couple of percent in recent years, there needs to be more significant reforms and an awareness that this should not be accepted as the norm. Across the spectrum of discrimination against both women and minority artists, the continued protests of the Guerrilla Girls only represent one strand of the feminist movement, moving towards tackling this problem head on. Once screen-printed onto black and white posters, these issues can be seen for their true colours. Whether in 1985 or 2019, the Guerrilla Girls' poster campaign shows that discrimination is still an issue that should be acknowledged and addressed.