Arts News: Nelson-Atkins Acquires Guerilla Girls Portfolio

This 1989 poster by the Guerrilla Girls, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?” will be part of a 2019 exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which recently acquired a complete portfolio of the artists’ works from 1985 to 2016. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

The Guerrilla Girls are rock stars. I once saw them at a NYC College Arts Association conference riding the hotel escalator wearing their trademark gorilla masks and black clothing. I was hoping they’d do something radical, but maybe they were just on their way to a panel, or maybe they were buying art books. Or maybe I had missed an excellent protest. At any rate, they were cool.

By creating posters, billboards and other ephemera calling out sexism and racism in the arts, film industries and in society at large, the Guerrilla Girls have creatively campaigned since 1985 to expose inequality through protest, posters, broadsheets, billboards and more. Would that their substantial work on the behalf of gender and ethnic bias had fostered more and faster change throughout the years. And yet, through their activism they have raised awareness of vast inequalities, and they have hopefully triggered people in power to work harder and better for what is right. They have at the least rankled some folks and their institutions, and at the most, forced some change.

Jan Schall, who recently retired as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Curator of Modern Art after a 22-year career at the museum, made one of her last purchases an important one by acquiring for the museum “Guerrilla Girls Portfolio Compleat, 1985-2012 + Upgrade 2012-2016,” a portfolio of 121 posters, flyers and other objects from the Guerrilla Girls’ oeuvre.

The purchase could not be more timely, given the #MeToo movement and the current political climate. We need equity everywhere, but most certainly on the walls of our museums, and we count on artists to expose hard truths and biases.

About her purchase Schall notes, “The Guerrilla Girls are a group of women artists who identify themselves as ‘The Conscience of the Art World.’ They conducted historical research, counted the number of art works by women in museums and the number of women artists represented by commercial galleries, and found those low numbers unacceptable. Then, wearing uniformly black clothing and gorilla head masks to hide their identities, the Guerrilla Girls exposed this inequality by pasting posters bearing their bold messages on city walls. They also ‘advertised’ their messages on rented billboards throughout New York City (the nation’s art capital) exposing this inequality. Their posters are direct and dead serious. Because of their efforts, the art world gradually opened to women artists.”

The Guerrilla Girls spare no one and no institution, aiming at senators, politicians, other countries, the film industry, museums, galleries, art magazines, editors, writers and collectors.

One poster features this letter: “Dear Art Collector, It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately. All our love, Guerrilla Girls.” A 2016 poster states: “The Guerrilla Girls asked 383 European Museums About Diversity. Only 1/4 Responded. What were the rest afraid of?” Other posters have called out by name critics who don’t write about women artists enough. An early 1985 poster noted “Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.”

By asking blunt questions of our cultural institutions and our politicians, the Guerrilla Girls push for awareness and action. The Guerrilla Girls are relevant. We need them because things are far from equitable. This purchase and an upcoming exhibition of the posters on the museum walls will remind us that this important work continues.

Brava Jan Schall!

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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