On 7 January I visited the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Guerilla Girls’ Is it even worse in Europe? exhibit. This was a small exhibit in terms of physical space but one that packed a lot of punch in what it was highlighting. It shared results of a 2016 survey they sent to 383 European museum directors regarding diversity, specifically the coverage of artists in their exhibitions who are women, gender non-conforming or from non-US and European countries.
The headlines were quite shocking, one of which – that only a quarter responded – is on a banner outside the gallery. The exhibit contained copies of all the completed questionnaires and you were invited to ‘walk over’ a list on the floor of those who didn’t respond. The yellow, red and grey colours used on the posters to share the results was jarring which I am guessing was their intention.
In the supporting press release the Guerrilla Girls said:
“With this project, we wanted to pose the question ‘Are museums today presenting a diverse history of contemporary art or the history of money and power?’ We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair. Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors. Unless museums and Kunsthallen show art as diverse as the cultures they claim to represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.”
As someone who has worked in organisational development and change for many years, I know from first-hand experience how powerful it can be to simply ask questions as a mechanism for drawing attention to an issue. For example it has taken European legislation on gender reporting to force organisations under the microscope with regard to their practices and even now there is evidence of firms only acting to deal with what they are judged on externally, which I find incredibly sad.
I wonder whether more could be done to share the Guerilla Girls’ survey results and work outside the gallery environment. How might we get it into places where young female and non-gender specific minds may be considering a career in art? Would it inspire more young people to art if they could get passionate about using it to help achieve positive cultural and political change? This unpacks a whole package of thorny issues such as how you can influence the curriculum and the role education plays. 2016 was a sad year for art in this regard, with A-level art history being axed by the Tories, with a paltry 18,533 signatures to date on the survey to ‘Save art history being cut from the A level curriculum‘. I learnt a huge amount about history and different countries’ political, cultural and social contexts when I recently started studying the history of art. It’s incredibly short-sighted of the Tories to do this.
I can’t say I “enjoyed” the Guerilla Girls exhibition as the responses provided by some of the galleries made my blood boil but I am glad they are out their fighting for change. I’d like to know what they want us, as the “customers” of the galleries to do to help drive change through too.