Crowd DNA’s Julie Bréthous went to the Whitechapel Gallery to see how the Guerrilla Girls used research to challenge European museums and give a louder voice to women and non-western artists...

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For their latest show, ‘Guerrilla Girls: Is It Even Worse In Europe?’, the Whitechapel Gallery invited the American activists to share their re-evaluation of diversity in European art institutions, 30 years after their first campaign. I was curious to discover how research could be used as a thought-provoking method within the art world to offer different perspectives on gender and racial diversity.

The Guerrilla Girls were founded in 1985, following MoMA’s ‘International Survey Of Painting And Sculpture’ (1984). Aimed at offering a comprehensive overview of the world’s best artists of the time, the exhibition failed to present a diverse portrait of the art world, only showing white artists – 90% of whom were men. A group of female artists quickly realised that, to expose the issue and shake up opinions, they’d have to find a new and unique approach. Using the language of their time – advertising – the now masked girls developed a strong visual identity, relying on outrageous statements, a dose of dry wit, and cold hard statistics.

“If you can make people laugh, you have a hook in their brain. And once you’re there, you have an opportunity to change their minds” – Guerrilla Girls for The Art Assignment

1985, Guerrilla Girls
1985, Guerrilla Girls

Owning the public space by stamping their findings and complaints all over the city walls, the Girls fought their battles in a true guerrilla style, aiming at the general public, artists, art institutions and investors. Not afraid to call out decision-makers, they fiercely denounced museum curators and their tendency to be dictated to by a handful of art buyers, whose vision of art remained limited to their own tastes.

In 1986, the anonymous group members were invited to speak in Europe. They came back with an implacable statement:

It's Even Worse In Europe, 1986, Guerrilla Girls
It's Even Worse In Europe, 1986, Guerrilla Girls

Twenty years of impromptu activism later, the Guerrilla Girls asked: is it (still) even worse in Europe?

Trying to determine whether museums are today presenting a ‘diverse history of contemporary art or the history of money and power’, the Girls sent out a questionnaire to 383 museums and kunsthalles in Europe.

Researchers know there’s no such thing as a perfect sample, and the Guerrilla Girls were soon to find this out… the hard way. Only one out for four institutions responded – a statement in itself on their reluctance to address the issue. Their answers have been on display at the Whitechapel Gallery since last November and the collection has achieved its objective by showing how the art world continues to be dominated by money, rather than cultural accuracy.

2016, Guerrilla Girls
2016, Guerrilla Girls

Even better, they’ve opened new avenues by showing that some institutions have managed to offer refreshing perspectives on art history, like Rotterdam’s Witte De With. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence now seeks to redress this imbalance by working with the Girls on how to include more female artists within their permanent collections. Uffizi director Eike Schmidt asks: ‘Where did this all start and how did this evolve? I think we are overdue and ready to put great female artists of the past back on view.’

‘Guerrilla Girls: Is It Even Worse In Europe?’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery until March 5

Part of GenderShift, a series exploring how identity is changing in modern times