After more than 40 years of activism and high-profile works of art, the legacy of the Guerrilla Girls continues to endure.
It began in 1984 when the Museum of Modern Art opened “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.”
The exhibition was launched in part to celebrate an expanded floor plan, and it boasted a collection that included “the most important artists” of the modern era. But of the 165 featured artists only 13 were women, and very few were people of color.
While this seemed acceptable and business-as-usual for many, a group of anonymous female-identifying artists decided it was time to change things.
The Origins of the Guerrilla Girls
The group was no doubt influenced by previous generations of feminists in the art world, including the likes of Lucy Lippard who created all-women exhibitions in the 70s. But this new group would seek out fresh, more effective ways to gain a wider audience.
They formed the Guerrilla Girls—a cadre of revolutionaries disrupting the power dynamics of the art world and reducing the control of billionaire collectors. The thinking went that, with institutions dominated by extremely rich oligarchs who were predominantly white men, art museums and galleries represented the power structures present in society.
If well-respected art is made by white men to appeal to wealthy white men, then it becomes a record of whiteness and patriarchy—rather than a representation of the entire culture.
The seven founding members of the Guerrilla Girls organized protests of MoMA’s exhibit, but this failed to make much of an impact.
They changed course, wheat pasting posters across downtown Manhattan. These sported stark designs and focused on statistics, which proved far more convincing to the public. The text called out galleries, museums, and art critics who excluded artists who were women and artists from minority backgrounds.
Growth and Expansion
The Guerrilla Girls recruited more members, eventually growing to 30, and expanded their activism. They also began donning gorilla masks to keep the identity of members anonymous, creating a mystique that has become legendary.
One popular tactic was the so-called “weenie count”—where they would go to museums and collect information on the gender of artists and the ratio of female to male subjects in nudes. Unsurprisingly, they found males dominated as artists, yet women made up the vast majority of nude subjects.
This mixture of humor and confrontation became a powerful toolset for inspiring change.
The Fight Continues
In the almost four decades since their founding, the Guerrilla Girls have created several noteworthy culture-jamming events that have seized the public conversation on art.
They’ve also expanded their mission to include labor issues, as in the 2015 piece “Dear Art Collector Billionaire”—a billboard that called out the poor wages for workers at art institutions despite the exorbitant price tags for artwork.
To this day, the Guerrilla Girls continue their fight. High-profile appearances on television shows and online have kept their message relevant.
While ideas of social justice, labor rights, and resistance to societal control by the ultra wealthy have become mainstream within the last 15 years, the Guerrilla Girls remain one of the most forceful voices for equality and fairness in the art world.
Their ongoing mission to transform art into a democratic force is as powerful and important today as ever, and their long legacy of upholding these values has secured them a much-needed place in art history.