A not-quite-multimedia performance by the Guerrilla Girls at Brooklyn Museum is, as always, both self-serving and thought-provoking

A Guerrilla Girl in a previous performance at the Brooklyn Museum. (Renita Hanfling)
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Jed Lipinski

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Last night two members of the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous group of feminists devoted to combating sexism in the art world, came to The Brooklyn Museum to promote a newest edition of their 2004 book The Guerrilla Girls Art Museum Activity Book.

The museum’s press release billed the event as an exciting-sounding “multimedia performance in full jungle drag.” In fact, the “performance” was little more than a lecture conducted by the group’s founders, who go by the pseudonyms Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz, in keeping with the Guerrilla Girls’ tradition of naming themselves after famous dead female artists.

The high point came at the very beginning, when Kahlo and Kollwitz, who were wearing gorilla masks, walked down the aisles handing out—and occasionally throwing!—bananas to eager members of the nearly sold-out crowd.

The crowd, Kahlo explained, consisted of many past, present and possibly future members of the Guerilla Girls. But due to the anonymous nature of the group, none of them could stand and be acknowledged. Instead, Kahlo suggested we simply look at the woman closest to us, who might have been, might be, or might someday become a Guerrilla Girl.

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I looked at the college-aged girl beside me, who returned my glance before quickly turning away. She was holding a banana. Could she have been a Guerrilla Girl?

Kahlo and Kollwitz stood behind lecterns on either end of the stage. They began by touting the achievements of the Guerrilla Girls over the last 27 years, ever since they put up two posters on the streets of Manhattan about the depressing state of women’s rights in the New York art world.

“Who knew it would cause all hell to break loose?” said Kahlo. “Who knew that we, the agitating outsiders, would wind up inside the museums we criticized, like the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London, where a room of our posters is on permanent display? Who knew that we’d do large-scale, outside street projects for cities like Rotterdam, Mexico City, Bilbao, Istanbul?”

Who knew that the Guerrilla Girls were such enthusiastic promoters of their work? And more importantly, who knew that The Brooklyn Museum would invite the Guerrilla Girls to deliver a lecture that repeatedly chastised The Brooklyn Museum?

For example: While enumerating the “Top Ten Signs That You Are An Art World Token,” Kahlo said, “A museum that won’t exhibit your work gives you a prominent place in its lecture series, kind of like what The Brooklyn Museum is doing to us tonight.”

The audience clapped.

Later, Kollwitz said, “Lots of museums, just like the Brooklyn Museum, have the names of dead white males inscribed on their facades.”

To remedy the situation, she proposed a “sex change operation,” in which the Guerrilla Girls would project the name of their group onto the façade at some point in the near future.

Finally, Kahlo noted that, in 1999, The Brooklyn Museum opened a show of contemporary British art from the collection of Charles Saatchi, who secretly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the show. Soon after the exhibition closed, she added, he auctioned off work by the same artists and received record prices.

“Interesting,” the man in front of me said.

What followed was a lengthy critique of other local art museums, curators and blue-chip galleries—much of it excerpted from the new edition of their book. And while not exactly breaking any news, it served to remind the audience about the depth of inequality and corruption that has always existed, and continues to exist, inside the New York art world.

Here are a few of the more interesting observations from the remainder of the talk:

  • Alexander McQueen Inc. was a major financial sponsor of the blockbuster show “Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum in 2011. When asked about the ethics of a company funding an exhibition of its own work, the curator of the McQueen show dismissed the question, citing a long tradition of such practices. For instance: In 1996, the Met organized a Christian Dior show funded entirely by Christian Dior. In 1997, they put on a Cartier show paid for by Cartier.
  • Ralph Esmerian, the art collector, jeweler and former Chairman of the American Folk Art Museum, was recently sentenced to six years in prison for fraud, false sales, and embezzlement. Before his arrest, he staged an expensive renovation that nearly bankrupted the place. MoMA then purchased the building for a low, low price.
  • MoMA gave Frank Stella retrospectives in 1970 and 1987. At the time, his dealer was Lawrence Rubin, whose brother Bill Rubin was then the curator of MoMA. Bill Rubin retired from MoMA in 1988. Stella has not had a retrospective since.
  • Over the last five years, MoMA has given only one career survey to an African-American artist. That artist was a man.

In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls conducted an on-site survey of the number of females and female nudes the Metropolitan Museum. They found that five percent of the artists in the Modern Art section were women, while 85% of the nudes were female. When they went back a few months ago, they discovered that, although the nudes are now just 76% female, the number of female artists has shrunk to less than 4%.

“I guess that’s progress,” said Kahlo.