In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a sprawling exhibition titled “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” that promised to display the best and most important contemporary art in the world. The show featured more than 150 male artists, fewer than 20 women artists, and very, very few artists of color—sparking outrage immediately. Artists stood in picket lines outside the museum in protest, and from those demonstrations, the Guerrilla Girls were born.
The cohort of female artists who dress up in gorilla costumes has remained anonymous, adopting aliases of famous historical women artists like Käthe Kollowitz and Frida Kahlo, and have been working to draw attention to the inequities within the art world ever since. In an exclusive new interview with Art21 as part of the new season of the flagship show , members of the group weigh in on their decades-long battle for representation.
“From the very beginning, we have been fighting against sexism, racism, and the death hold that wealthy people and wealthy institutions have on art and culture,” Frida explained. “We were educated to sort of respect all the institutions and the people that were making decisions and the people who were writing art history, but it dawned on us that it was filled with its own biases and limitations.”
In 1989, the group drew up a “museum’s code of ethics” that they thought should be installed at every institution, including pithy, tongue-in-cheek statements like, “Thou shalt show and collect lots of art by women and artists of color BEFORE they are dying or dead!”
Years later, in 2022, the artists decided to update the code to include more contemporary issues like “Thou shalt honor all thine employees, never undermine their efforts to unionize, and pay them a living wage. Thou shalt banish board members who make the world a worse place.” The activists engage with visitors to the museum, prompting conversations about what the role of museums should be.
“The power of the Guerrilla Girls’ work was that whenever I looked at their material, I felt implicated,” said one visitor. “It wasn’t somebody else’s problem, it was my problem.”
Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.