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Meet the Guerrilla Gorillas Making Patriarchy Art History

Art activist group Guerrilla Girls digs into art diversity in Europe, in a new exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery.

A 1986 poster stating "It’s Even Worse in Europe" is being revisited at Whitechapel Gallery, as the artist activist group the Guerrilla Girls presents new insights into the practice of Europe’s art institutions and museums. Revealing a greater need for diversity while sparking a much needed dialogue on the practices of European art organizations, and covering 16 countries, the exhibit Is it even worse in Europe? is a telling snapshot of the representation of both female and minority artists in contemporary Europe.

“I think when we started this project we thought of it as partly a statistical investigation,” says a member of the anonymous Guerrilla Girls. “We’ve used statistics in a lot of our work, but when we read what people wrote, we really realized that we had to let them speak for themselves.”

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Guerrilla Girls. It’s even worse in Europe. 1986. Courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls.

Questionnaires sent to nearly 400 art galleries and museums across Europe, from the cosmopolitans of Paris and London, to the less visited areas of Sibiu and Otterlo, asked for an assessment of the number of female artists within their collections and exhibition programs, to which answers varied but sided with homogeneity. Other inquiry was made into how many artists were from Africa, Asia, and South America, alongside the numbers of gender non-conforming and unfamiliar artists promoted. Only 101 cultural institutions responded.  

“We sort of said, well we’d like to hear from you by such and such a date, and if we don’t hear from you, that response will be part of the exhibition as well,” explained the Guerrilla Girls. “So there was a little bit of pressure in the original questionnaire. I’m glad if it actually worked.”

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Guerrilla Girls. 2015. Photo: Andrew Hindraker Courtesy the Guerrilla Girls

Blitz-like tactics like these—exhibited by a poster containing the names of the questionnaire non responders—are characteristically Guerrilla Girls, the group having made a name for itself with poster campaigns comprised of hard figures and humor, seeking to alter the art world’s predominately male-dominated and billionaire agenda. Formed in response to the lack of female presence in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, the Guerrilla Girls have since taken on racial inequality, believing that the way institutions are run bare the responsibility for diversity.     

“There’s no lack of great artists out there,” they say. “But we certainly don’t want our museums to collect only the top ten artists of our generation, which they’re often stuck doing because those are the artists that the trustees and super rich collectors collect.”

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Guerrilla Girls. DO WOMEN STILL HAVE TO BE NAKED TO GET INTO THE MET. MUSEUM? 2012. Courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls

Focused mainly on the US scene, where the privatization of museums potentially reflects the low percentage of women and non-white artists, the group recently turned its attention to Europe, where a 2013 audit of 100 London galleries showed only 5% gender equality. “One of the big things today, specifically in America, is that we have these multinational galleries and these collectors who are Kings of the world,” they explain. “We wanted to know if museums were feeling this kind of pressure.”

Ten new posters are featured in the Whitechapel exhibit, displaying answers from participating galleries paired with telling statistics and cheeky commentary. Staying in line with the group’s previous work, the exhibit aims to create conversations around fair opportunities for all artists.   

They say, “It’s a growing, creeping problem. So we just want to ask the larger questions of can we allow this system to tell us our history and what are the problems with that history, which is created by the taste, money, and power of a few.” 

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Guerrilla Girls. Dear Art Collector. 2015. Courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls: Is it even worse in Europe? runs at Whitechapel Gallery until 5 March 2017. See more here

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