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Guerrilla Girls Take Arizona, Bring Art Activism And Gorilla Masks To SMOCA

Published: Friday, November 18, 2016 - 7:50pm
Updated: Friday, November 18, 2016 - 10:21pm
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(Photo © Andrew Hindraker, 2015)
Guerrilla Girls at the Abrons Art Center in New York.
(Photo © Guerrilla Girls)
Guerrilla Girls, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?"

They call themselves “the conscience of the art world.”

The Guerilla Girls have been using humor and facts to challenge museum directors and gallery owners around the world about the lack of diversity in their art collections for 30 years.

On Friday, they’ll be bringing that message to Tempe. Käthe Kollwitz, one of the group’s founding members, is giving a free lecture on ASU’s Tempe campus Friday. On Saturday, she’s hosting an Art and Activism Workshop at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kollwitz, though, is not her real name. Since the Guerrilla Girls were founded in 1985, they’ve all remained anonymous.

Every time they appear, they wear gorilla masks and all black, and they only identify themselves by pseudonyms of dead women artists. Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist who was active in politics in the early 1900s.

“We formed with this new idea about how to do political art – very in your face, facts, humor,” she said. “We started putting posters up on the streets of New York City about the really sad state of utter discrimination in the art world, where women artists and artists of color could barely get their work shown in galleries and museums.”  

And, since the New York art world was such a tight-knit community, Kollwitz said, they originally chose to be anonymous because they didn’t want it to hurt the work they were doing as artists under their real names.

“But, we almost immediately realized that the delicious secret of who we might be was a fantastic thing for the Guerrilla Girls,” Kollwitz said. “So, it’s one of the secrets of our success.”

The Guerrilla Girls are most famous for activist projects like putting up a billboard outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that says, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

Because, as the billboard pointed out, they’ll point out less than 5 percent of the artists in the modern art sections there are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.

From the beginning, the Guerrilla Girls have used humor and facts to tackle the art world, which Kollwitz said has helped them get through to people.

“If you can get someone to laugh at an issue who doesn’t agree with you, you might get them to see something differently and change their minds,” she said. 

And, she said, after doing work like this for decades, it’s clear that many museums today want to do better when it comes to presenting work from a more diverse group of artists.

“Museums are stuck with their collections,” she said, “and since the only valuable artists … before about 40 years ago or so were male artists, museums have these collections of mostly white male art.”

Today, their work is featured in many museums, such as the Tate Modern in London, but Kollwitz said they always reserve the right to protest any museum, including the ones that exhibit their work.
The more their work is shown in museums, the more people they hear from whose perspectives are changed by seeing their work.

“We get these emails from people,” she said, “because they went into the   museum thinking art was a meritocracy and whatever was in there was the best stuff. And they go out thinking, ‘Wow, I should pay attention to what the makeup of the museum is.'”

That doesn’t make you dislike art, it just expands your view of what art should be, she said.

“If a museum doesn’t include the entire story of our culture, it’s not preserving history,” she said. “It’s just preserving the tastes of the rich and powerful.”

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