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The Bad Girls of the Art World : The Guerrilla Girls call attention to the lack of opportunity for women in museums and galleries with posters that can be seen in a retrospective at Loyola Marymount University

January 19, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for Westside/Valley Calendar.

"A protest was held, and some of the people who attended were disappointed because it was a typical protest with placards in front of the museum. We felt dissatisfied with its effectiveness. We began to realize that the issue of women's under-representation in the art world needed some immediate, savvy '80s techniques, not '60s techniques. So we set out to see whether we could make feminism fashionable again."

The group of women who would become the Guerrilla Girls, the self-proclaimed "Conscience of the Art World," got together and instantly came up with ideas for two posters. "One said, 'These artists allow their work to be shown in galleries that show less than 10% women.' The other said, 'These galleries show less than 10% women or none at all," Kollwitz explained. "It was a list of the worst galleries for women and a bunch of the artists who show in them. Since the worst galleries for women were the most prestigious galleries in New York, the list of artists was a very prestigious list indeed."

Kollwitz said that soon after the posters were put up, artists and galleries that were named expressed their irritation. "It started people thinking about the issue. No one knew how bad it had been. That was part of our strategy too. We thought, 'We'll find out how bad it is,' and even we were shocked to find out how bad it was."

The group named themselves immediately. "We wanted to be politically incorrect and use the word girls to annoy everybody," Kollwitz said. Then someone in the group made the connection between guerrilla and gorilla. The Girls were starting to get requests to be photographed but wanted to remain anonymous. They began to put photographs of Guerrilla Girls wearing gorilla masks and fishnet stocking in their posters.

"The Guerrilla Girls defy the traditional identity given to females by mixing everything up," Lederer said with a chuckle.

"We've made feminism and social responsibility sexy," Kollwitz said with delight.

"In the beginning, we decided to be anonymous for two reasons," she explained. "Reason 1 was simply fear, because we thought it would really be bad for our careers if people knew who we were.

"Reason 2 was we didn't want people's reactions to what we did to be connected to who we were. We're a very diverse group--different ages, different races, different levels of art-world success. Some people in the group are very well-known, some unknown. The work that people in the group do is very diverse. Their ideas about art are very diverse. So we didn't want any focus on who we were. We wanted people looking at the posters to focus on the issues.

"We soon found out that this anonymity was one of the smartest things we ever did because it bothers some people. 'You're telling us what to do, why don't you come out and say who you are?' they'd say. This mystery is very seductive. We're certainly much more interesting and fun to look at than a bunch of regular human beings sitting around a podium talking about something. And we can say whatever we want. As a group, we're free to do whatever we can convince each other to do."

The Girls followed up their initial posters by doing a series on different issues in the art world, such as what percentage of women were reviewed and how many museum one-person shows were by women. "All the figures were terrible, so we annoyed one group after another--the curators, the critics, the dealers, the male artists," Kollwitz said.

"We were saying to them all, 'You are accountable for this.' The first reaction of each group was to say, 'We're powerless in the situation.' The dealers would say things like, 'Women's work doesn't sell.' The artists would say, 'It's hard enough for male artists to show.' The critics would say, 'We have to write what our editors tell us to write.' But gradually, things changed. People started realizing it was up to them.

"The most incredible thing to us was that things actually did improve, which is not to say that things are great. We have spies all over the country, and we hear that in Los Angeles a major contemporary art show is about to open at your Museum of Contemporary Art, and out of 16 artists, it contains four women," Kollwitz said. She was referring to the upcoming "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" show at MOCA, which is scheduled to open next Sunday.

"And we've also heard there are four women because there were originally only two women, and no people of color, but enough people complained to the museum that two other women were added and two artists of color. There is prejudice, unconscious and conscious, in the art world, just like there was, and probably is, in every industry in this country. And it's only changed by pressure."

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