Guerrilla Girls is a feminist art collective aiming to call out discrimination and corruption in politics, pop culture and the art world. They have been active since 1985 and are totally anonymous – relying on the use of gorilla masks when giving public talks to keep their identities hidden. As they explain on their website, this anonymity assists them in keeping ‘the focus on the issues, and away from who [they] might be.’
The group currently has an exhibition on at the NGV featuring their works ranging from 1985-2016. I visited the exhibition and while the work on display was incredibly powerful and important, I couldn’t help but notice that apart from my friend and I, the room was empty. In the time that I spent in the exhibition, I only saw three other people enter the room. A school group did enter the room at one point, however they merely used the room as a kind of meeting point, and once their whole group had arrived, they quickly exited.
The lack of people visiting this exhibition is highlighted further when you walk into the MoMA exhibition which is also currently on at the NGV. I waited in line to buy my tickets for this exhibition – which weren’t at all cheap (a student ticket is $24.95) – before making my way through packed rooms and encountering huge crowds of people and school groups in every room of the MoMA exhibition. Guerrilla Girls regularly call out museums like MoMA for their lack of representation of art by women and people of colour. In fact, Guerrilla Girls began after a protest outside MoMA in 1984 – in which the museum was debuting an exhibition of 169 artists, in which only 13 of these artists were women. Most of the visitors to the MoMA exhibition wouldn’t have walked upstairs and seen the types of things Guerrilla Girls were calling this museum and many others, out for. They were instead leaving the NGV with the mere experience of viewing some artworks featured in MoMA, and missing out on the experience of seeing the controversy behind these artworks.
An employee of the NGV very proudly told me that there have been 170,000+ visitors to the MoMA exhibition since it opened in June. My follow up question about the number of visitors to the Guerrilla Girls exhibition was met with confusion, as she said she was not sure how many people had visited that exhibition. The disparity between the two exhibitions was even more apparent when visiting the NGV gift shop, in which a mere 3 Guerrilla Girls items were for sale, among a room filled with MoMA merchandise.
The art world, however, has begun to take notice of Guerrilla Girls, with their artwork being displayed in exhibitions around the world, including America, Australia, China and many others. However, what is clear, at least from the NGV exhibition, is that the public is reluctant to get involved with this type of radical feminist artwork.
The question must be asked – how can an exhibition from a museum which in 2013 featured only 8 works by female artists out of a total collection of 367 works, be so incredibly popular, when the exhibition down the hall calling out this kind of sexism remains empty? What needs to be done to heighten people’s awareness of the inequality that is so present in the art world?
Maura Reilly, writer for Art News, says the key to ending this discrimination is for people to become more proactive, urging people to “call out institutions, critics, curators, collectors and gallerists for sexist practices”. Perhaps it is time for us all to pay more attention to the disparities present in the art world, by increasing our presence at exhibitions such as the Guerrilla Girls.