Guerrilla Girls hit town to fight gender, race bias in art

Looking over the installation.
Guerrilla Girl "Frida Kahlo," left, consults with collaborator "Kathe Kollwitz" as exhibition technicians install artwork for an exhibit opening Thursday that features a selection of Guerrilla Girls posters from the recently acquired archive Portfolio Compleat at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Starting Thursday evening, more than 30 arts organizations are joining together for what's being called the "Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover."

The Guerrilla Girls are feminist art activists who fight discrimination in the art world.

This weekend the Walker, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design are all hosting events and exhibitions involving or inspired by the work of the Guerrilla Girls. Events are programmed through March.

"We've never been part of anything like this before," said Guerrilla Girl Kathe Kollwitz, her voice muffled by the big black furry gorilla mask she wore as she watched Walker staff install a wall of newly acquired posters.

Her pseudonym is taken from the famous German printmaker. As one of the Guerrilla Girls' founding members, this Kollwitz has spent the last 30 years working in anonymity. That felt necessary, she said, when the group formed in 1985.

A Guerrilla Girl watches the installation.
Her identity hidden inside a mask, one of the Guerrilla Girls watches as exhibition technicians at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis install posters for the group's exhibit.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"We didn't want people to discount our message because they hated our work," she said. "Now of course we don't really need them in that way anymore. But the mystery still attracts attention, and I think it still works for us, so we're not about to take them off yet."

The Guerrilla Girls came together to protest the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the modern art world. They created clever posters and billboards that combined statistics and humor to raise awareness. They skewered not just museums, but art collectors and major art festivals, Broadway, and the film industry.

Just last week, Stephen Colbert welcomed the Guerrilla Girls to "The Late Show" and summed up one of the problems facing the art world rather succinctly:

Exhibition technician Will Lakey levels a poster.
Exhibition technician Will Lakey uses a level to check the position of a poster.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"In 1985, the Guggenheim had zero solo shows by women artists, the Metropolitan had zero, the Whitney had zero, and the Modern had one. OK? Thirty years later, the Guggenheim had one, the Metropolitan had one, The Whitney had one, and the Modern had two," Colbert said.

"Yeah, and that's the progress we've made in 30 years," replied a Guerrilla Girl.

Looking at Twin Cities art museums, one might think they're islands of gender equality in a sea of sexism. The Walker, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Weisman, the Minnesota Museum of American Art — all are run by women. But as Walker Art Center Director Olga Viso pointed out, discrimination can't be solved simply by changing a director. It's about the museums' collections, too.

Guerrilla Girls 'Kathe Kollwitz' and 'Frida Kahlo'
Guerrilla Girls "Kathe Kollwitz," left, and "Frida Kahlo" stand in front of a poster exhibit at the Walker Arts Center.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"You know at the Walker, if you look at the exhibitions that we do and the works that we bring into the collection, more than half of those are works by women and artists of color," she said. "But overall, changing those imbalances from the whole collection — our collection is still only 22 percent work of women artists and a little over 10 percent artists of color."

Rochester Art Center Director Megan Johnston is one of the organizers of the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover, which has events in Rochester as well. She agreed with Viso, and added that important aspects of the art world live outside the purview of museums.

"What are the galleries showing?" she asked. "What's going on at the art fairs? Who's getting the shows? Who's getting the awards? It's still a battle to continually be aware of what circumstances are and who we're showing and what we're showing."

One of the major goals of the Twin Cities celebration is to inspire activism. Kathe Kollwitz said the Guerrilla Girls have been working with local student groups to create art about issues that affect their lives.

"We live in a world with just so many problems and so many kinds of discrimination," she said. "Today we have Black Lives Matter. We have all kinds of violence against women and trans people. We have war, the political system — it's endless."

Guerrilla Girls look at the installation space.
Guerrilla Girls "Kathe Kollwitz," left, and "Frida Kahlo," right, look at the installation space with Walker Art Center Exhibition technician Doc Czypinski.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The Guerrilla Girls say their goal is for the art world to reflect the culture as a whole, in all its diversity. Until then, as they told Colbert, museums are failing to represent the history of art; they're representing the history of power.

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