In Philly, the Guerrilla Girls aren’t ready to make nice

The Guerrilla Girls at work. (Image courtesy of the Galleries at Moore.)

With the gender harassment volcano exploding, could there be a better time to honor Guerrilla Girls, an art collective that unabashedly confronts the suppression of women in art? 

And there’s no better place than the Galleries at Moore, set in the first and only visual-arts college for women in the United States.

In another serendipitous development, Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond opens January 20, the inaugural anniversary of a president who is thus far impervious to claims of sexual harassment.

MoMA survey says: Men at 92 percent

“The Galleries at Moore was one of the first institutions to show a Guerrilla Girls retrospective, in 1993,” says director Gabrielle Lavin Suzenski. “This gives us an opportunity to reflect on what’s happening and how the Guerrilla Girls make statements others are afraid to… The pieces fell into place at the right time. We’re really excited.”

The Guerrilla Girls came together in 1985, in response to the Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” that included just 13 women among 169 artists.

Counting works and taking names, the Girls speak facts to power, calling out museum directors, boards, critics, and gallery owners for paying female artists and art professionals less, featuring them in fewer collections, shows, and publications, and thereby sabotaging their careers.

An in-your-face conscience

It isn’t just their veracity that attracts attention, but the cleverness and humor with which the Guerrilla Girls document reality. In 1989, finding dramatic imbalance between works by women and works featuring nude women at the Metropolitan Museum, they produced a poster of a reclining nude wearing a gorilla mask. Beneath is the inscription, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?”

Earlier, they issued The Guerrilla Girls 1986 Report Card, evaluating 17 galleries’ showings of female artists. In the style of an elementary-school report, it characterizes galleries as “working below capacity,” “boy crazy,” or “doesn’t follow directions.”

“A lot of what they do is about creating a presence,” says Suzenski. The Moore exhibit includes not just billboard-sized banners, but evidence of Guerilla Girls actions — a documentary, projected slideshow, ephemera, anecdotes, and a visitor talk-back space. “There will be a good mix of things to see and respond to,” explains Suzenski.

Feminists, by any other name

Members remain anonymous, christening themselves as artists who managed to break through, such as Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Käthe Kollwitz. They wear gorilla masks, forcing the public to judge their work on content.

Membership changes over time. Even Suzenski doesn’t know how many, or who, the Guerrilla Girls are. On March 15, however, one — perhaps Frida Kahlo — will speak at Moore with exhibit curator Neysa Page-Lieberman.

Despite the Girls’ compelling message, results are mixed and significant bias continues. In a June 2015 issue of Art News examining sexism in art, author and curator Maura Reilly wrote, “As of the Guerrilla Girls’ last count, in 2012, only 4 percent of artists on display at the Metropolitan Museum were women — worse than in 1989.” Reilly also reported that a 2015 Artnet.com ranking of the “Top 100 Living Artists 2011-2014” included just five women.

So there is still plenty to chronicle: galleries to be graded, curators to be held to account, and inequity in exposure, evaluation, and earnings to be documented. The Guerrilla Girls will not be removing their masks anytime soon.

Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond is coming to the Galleries at Moore (20th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia) from January 20 through March 17. There’s a free opening reception on Friday, January 19 from 5:30-8pm. The galleries are free and open Monday through Saturday, 11am to 5pm.  For more information, call 215-965-4027 or visit online

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