In 1989, bright yellow posters featuring a reclining female nude with a gorilla mask were emblazoned across public buses in New York City. The poster alluded to the Romantic era, featuring a reproduction of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque—albeit with a unique, bestial twist. To the right of Ingres' nude lay a provocative question, splayed across the poster in bold typeface:
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
This poster is considered the magnum opus of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective formed in 1984. The group was conceptualized as a response to the International Survey of Painting and Sculpture (1984) held at the MoMA in New York. Of the 165 artists represented, less than 10% were women or minorities. As a result, the Guerrilla Girls assumed famous pseudonyms, donned gorilla masks, and protested the exclusivity and prejudice pervading the institutions meant to represent them.
The Guerrilla Girls employed a variety of techniques in their mission: compiling statistics on discrimination, publicizing their research through audacious billboards, and incorporating mass–media techniques into their projects. Often, they engaged in public demonstrations to protest openings for galleries that exhibited only white male artists. In 1986 the group created a report card tallying women artists in different New York Galleries. The highest grade given on this report card? Only four female artists—accompanied by the tongue–in–cheek comment “making excellent progress."
The Guerrilla Girls are one example in the realm of institutional critique—a genre centered on the “critique of museums, galleries, private collections, and other art institutions." Hans Haacke, a German–born artist, is another leading figure in the movement known for pioneering the field of “art exposé." Haacke’s work focused on art’s complicity in economic and political injustice, blurring the distinction between journalism and art. Similar to the Guerrilla Girls, Haacke often made research and statistics the centerpiece of his work. In “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real–Time Social System as of May 1, 1971,” Haacke combined data from public records to chronicle the fraudulent activities of a large slumlord in New York City. He engaged in thorough documentation: featuring photographs, charts, and text about ownership and financial histories.
“Shapolsky et al…” garnered widespread controversy, especially from the museum director at the Guggenheim, Thomas Messer. In a 1971 interview with the NYT, Messer claimed that while he was “all for exposing slumlords," he did not “..believe the museum is the proper place to do it.” Messer went on to assert that while “art may have social and political consequences," these consequences were furthered by a generalized force works of art may have, rather than explicitly political art that sought to achieve political ends.
At the time, Haacke was due to exhibit his first solo show at the Guggenheim. In light of “Shapolsky et al…” the exhibition was canceled.
Three years later, Haacke exacted (by his own admission) revenge. His 1974 work “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees” undermined the supposed neutrality and “generalized” political force of the Guggenheim museum. The work, a series of lists typeset and framed to appear like an official document, detailed how the Guggenheim trustees profited off Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup d’état the year before. Haacke’s piece emphasized how art was underpinned by a mass set of systems and institutions: most of which were flawed and exclusionary.
Another prominent artist in this field, Fred Wilson, took an alternative approach. Wilson subverted his role as a curator, examining which art and artifacts were exhibited, and what history they represented. In his 1992 installation at the Maryland Historical Society, “Mining the Museum”, Wilson upended the museum’s white, upper–class narrative. He placed elegant 19th–century armchairs around a whipping post, contrasting silver repoussé vessels with slave shackles. In a stark commentary on the absence of Black and Native American history in museums, he placed three empty pedestals next to the museum’s busts of Andrew Jackson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Henry Clay. These pedestals were inscribed with the names of prominent African–American historical figures missing from the Maryland museum: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, and Harriet Tubman.
Institutional critique fosters a dialogue not solely about art, but about the vessels that publicize it. The genre forces its viewers to consider the exclusivity and prejudice behind places meant to act as forums for public expression. Art is considered by many as a vehicle for social and political change—but this role is predicated on reaching an audience. While there are other mediums by which artists can distribute their work, museums can play a huge role in such engagement. They also act as mechanisms for “enculturation”, the process of informal and formal cultural learning.
To some extent, museums have progressed in their inclusivity. For instance, in 2019, the MoMA reopened after a multimillion–dollar renovation, expanding their artists on view to be 28% female. Moreover, most museums have accepted their politically charged roles in lieu of favoring neutrality: in response to public outcry over the Sacklers’ role in the opioid epidemic, the Guggenheim cut ties with them and their philanthropic contributions altogether.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that institutions still have a long way to go. The Guggenheim museum came under fire recently for its treatment of Chaédria LaBouvier, the museum's first Black curator in its 80–year history. LaBouvier, in a series of tweets, alleged that the Guggenheim refused to let her host her own panel of her work, giving the role instead to Nancy Spector (the museum’s white curator). Furthermore, a major study analyzing more than 40,000 works of art detailed in 18 major U.S museums online found that 85% of artists featured are white and 87% are men.
With regards to the Guerrilla Girls’ original provocation, it seems that there’s still a long road ahead. Institutions need to acknowledge their exclusionary and prejudicial history, and actively work to alleviate it. They need to not only work to increase the representation of the artists exhibited but also improve diversity in curators and museum staff. Museums need to learn from the genre of institutional critique, by thoughtfully considering who is represented as well as who is choosing what gets represented.
In the realm of art, representation remains paramount–not just within the canvas, but outside of it.