Library Catalog

Guerrilla Girls records, 1979–2003

The feminist artist protest group known as the Guerrilla Girls formed to fight discrimination against women artists and artists of color in the art world, eventually extending its reach to broader social issues. This archive documents its activities from 1985 to 2000 through membership rosters, minutes of meetings, drafts of lectures, personal letters, hate and fan mail, and other unpublished writings that chronicle the founding of the group, its planning and development of guerrilla tactics, internal debates, and the private and public response to the protest actions.

Guerrilla Girls grew out of a demonstration in 1985 by a group of women artists protesting an exhibition titled An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and billed as an up-to-the-minute survey of the most significant contemporary art in the world. The show featured 148 men, 13 women, and no artists of color. The women artists were moved to action not only by this disparity but also by the words of the show's curator, who said that any artist who wasn't in the show should rethink "his" career.

When placards and chants failed to draw attention to their cause, some of the protestors formed a group whose goal was to find new techniques to fight discrimination in the arts. They decided on a guerrilla-style protest, wearing gorilla masks in public and adopting pseudonyms that celebrated past female artists to keep the focus on the issues, not on their individual personalities. "We were funny instead of super serious all the time," said a Guerrilla Girl known as Gertrude Stein. "No one knew who we were. And we caused a sensation."

Of particular interest are the research files that show the group's method of gathering statistics from arts institutions to provide evidence of discrimination by gender and race. Members put up anonymous posters in the middle of the night around SoHo, where the galleries were then, that simply stated these facts. The posters called out galleries that only showed the work of male artists, while also going after critics and museum directors, systematically putting every separate group in the art world on alert that their records were being examined and that they had some explaining to do.

One poster, depicting Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's famous painting Grande Odalisque with a gorilla head, asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" and noted that less than five percent of the modern artists shown there were women while more than 85 percent of the museum's nudes were female. These posters embodied the Guerrilla Girls' formula for successful propaganda: punchy copy, startling statistics, and eye-catching graphics. The posters soon became collectors' items.

By the 1990s, this collective, which adopted the motto, "Fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur," was getting its message out through billboards, bus ads, magazine spreads, protest actions, letter-writing campaigns, speaking tours at colleges and museums, and in art shows. The group also published a series of books, including The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, which deconstructed the "stale, male, pale, Yale" perspective on art history, and eventually expanded their operations to Hollywood, London, Istanbul, and Tokyo. Their campaigns have addressed not only discrimination against women artists but also homelessness, abortion, eating disorders, and war.

Today three organizations represent the Guerrilla Girls' legacy. The first, Guerrilla Girls, Inc., continues the original mission of the group, using provocative posters and stickers as well as published books, traveling lectures, and a website to campaign for feminism in the worlds of art and media. The second, Guerrilla Girls on Tour, Inc., is a theater collective that performs plays and street theater actions dramatizing women's history and questioning the sexism and racism of the art and theater worlds. The final group, GuerrillaGirlsBroadband, Inc. (also called "The Broads"), fights many of the same battles as the first two groups, but focuses more on younger women, women of color, and workplace issues. Their main tool is their website.