Conceptual artist and activist "Käthe Kollwitz" found out long ago that the best way to get people to listen to you is to wear a mask and crack a joke. That's exactly what her longtime group, the Guerrilla Girls, has been doing since 1989. The New York-based feminist collective is passionate about shining a spotlight on the lack of works by women and minorities hanging in our nation's museums. The band of anonymous, gorilla masked crusaders assumes the name of dead women artists (from Gertrude Stein to Frida Kahlo) and papers cities across the globe with funny hot pink and yellow statistics-laden posters, targets offending galleries with snarky letter-writing campaigns and puts up Hollywood billboards during Academy Awards season that feature goofy cartoons of what Oscar would look like if he matched the stats of his winners: old, white and fat. These days you're as likely to encounter the Girls at a book signing as on the syllabus for a college course on feminism. Kollwitz, who now lives in Los Angeles, and one of her cohorts will be in town next Tuesday to hold one of the Girls' smart, pop culture-laden art and activism lectures—in "full jungle drag," of course, mask included.
WW: Give me the one stat on women and the art world that really blows your mind.
[Laughs] One of our most well known posters was done ages ago, in 1989: It says: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met museum?" We went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and did what we like to call "the weenie count." We counted the number of naked males and naked females in the paintings versus the number of female and male artists [whose works were on display]. Less than 5 percent of the artists were women, but 85 percent of the nudes were female. A couple years ago, we went back to the Met and counted again. We were sure it would be so much better! But in 2005, we found the statistic was less than 3 percent of artists were women and 83 percent [of the] nudes. So, a few less women artists but a few more naked men.
In 2004's Guerrilla Girls: Art Museum Activity Book you explain art museums as "the product of rich people running out of space in their houses and churches." Is that still true?
Most people do feel the art world is a meritocracy. And everything in the museums is the good stuff. And the stuff that's not there…isn't. But a museum has the responsibility to tell the real story of a culture. A hundred years from now, are museums gonna have only part of the art that was being was made? If they're only collecting the white male part, we've got a problem.
Is that true of the art world in general?
It's gotten a lot better at the entry level. Art galleries do have much more work by women and people of color. However, as you go up the ladder, it gets worse and worse. Museums are still lagging way behind. I think a lot of discrimination is unconscious. [We] try and change the minds of unconscious discriminators by pointing out what's going on…in our crazy way. We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way you haven't seen before. Using facts, outrageous visuals…we like to call it "creative complaining."
I like that term.
Yeah, especially since everyone hates a woman that complains.
Why the masks and the posters?
We lived in New York [in the '80s] and saw things were getting worse for women artists. At that moment, the Met announced a new show called "An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture." There were 169 artists, and 17 of them were female. And that's outrageous. The curator started giving interviews and mentioned that "any artist not in this show should rethink his career." The Women's Caucus for Art called for a demonstration, and [fellow Guerrilla Girl founder] Frida Kahlo and I went. We were marching around in front of the museum and everyone is just crossing the picket line and going right in. And that's when we started to see that people thought whatever the museum was doing was right. The demonstration had no effect. We thought, "There's got to be a better way. We've got to get through to people." So we called a meeting, put up some posters and all hell broke loose.
You guys really stay anonymous. Why?
The art world is a small, ingrown place. In the beginning we were afraid our careers would be hurt. But very quickly we realized this was a great thing for the kind of work we were doing. No one could discount the Guerrilla Girls' work because they didn't like our individual art. The secret and the mystery attracted attention to our cause—both positive and negative. And the fact you can't get credit for it keeps it pure.
How many Girls are out there?
Over our history around 70 or 80 women have been involved, but at any one time, it's pretty small because we decided we didn't want to be a talking group, we wanted to be an acting group. Right now we're working on a book about women in Hollywood. And we're doing a project in Montreal in fall that's about the hatred of feminism.
What's been the Guerrilla Girls' greatest triumph?
We've only just begun our complaining about Hollywood. We've been putting up billboards [of an anatomically correct Oscar] at the time of the Academy Awards…three in the last several years. They really change people's minds when they see them, because nobody knows these statistics. We're not talking to an art audience, we're talking to any passersby who see it on the street, and we get a lot of letters. That's cool. We wanna change people's minds. Hollywood is lagging way behind in women and people of color in positions of power behind the scenes—writers, editors, cinematographers, directors. The numbers are pathetically low. The art world has gotten better because of activism. In Hollywood, there is very little activism. People don't want to make waves. It takes individuals stepping up and hiring different kinds of people. [Years ago] it wasn't like women were allowed in med and law schools one day. There was a fight to make that happen. And it took the heads of institutions to change their policies.
In a perfect world, what do our publicly owned museums look like?
Museum ethics are in the toilet. They are more and more just an extension of the marketplace, and that's wrong. Right now it's a culture of wealthy individuals sitting on boards promoting their own collections—and too many of those collections are cookie-cutter.
What do you say to people who just say, "Well, dudes must just make more good art."
The old quality thing…. Besides telling them they're wrong? I think the numbers are convincing. We're not complaining because museums aren't showing 50 percent women, we're complaining because it's only 3 percent. That just can't be. The world is diverse, and the museums aren't.
Is there something women do that hinders their chances to get into bigger art collections?
No, I don't buy that. It's more that there's still this stereotype of the genius artist, and the stereotype is male.
What are the Portland Art Museum's numbers?
I don't know. Call 'em up.
Why did you choose German artist Käthe Kollwitz as your alias?
I picked her because in addition to being an artist, she was a lifelong activist—working on women and children's rights. I really admired that. She also didn't really buy into the idea of art as this super-expensive item. She did a lot of cheap prints that she'd give out or sell inexpensively.
So how much money do you sell your art for?
Hey, I won't answer that.
Where do you get your gorilla masks?
We go to Halloween stores, they are around $40. Your mask becomes your friend. My favorite mask is disgusting-looking by now. The nose fell off while I was waiting to go on a San Francisco TV show. Luckily they had a lot of gaffers' tape in the green room. I had to get a new one. It was really difficult. A girl shouldn't have to change her mask; it's traumatic.
The Guerrilla Girls lecture on art and activism as part of
magazine's Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture lecture series at Portland State University, Smith Memorial Ballroom, 1825 SW Broadway. 7 pm Tuesday, April 28. $8-$10. Tickets available at the PSU Box Office, 1825 SW Broadway, 888-845-8457 or ticketmaster.com. More info at guerrillagirls.com.