Can women wear clothes in the Met?

It’s time art museums started doing a better job representing female artists in their collections.

Alia Jeraj

Last Thursday, the Guerilla Girls launched their “Twin Cities Takeover” with events at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Walker Art Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Art.
 
 
The Guerilla Girls are a group of anonymous female artists who have been producing media since 1985 to bring awareness to sexism and racism in art, politics, film and our culture at large. As part of their largest collaboration with a community to date, they will be in the Twin Cities through March.
 
 
One of the group’s primary concerns is the unequal treatment of female artists in terms of income and representation in major art galleries and museums. 
 
 
We can’t explain away this phenomenon simply by assuming there are fewer female artists than male ones — to the contrary, women earn half of the United States’ MFAs, and they make up 51 percent of visual artists in the country. 
 
 
Rather, museum collections’ lack of female artists is due to a pervasive culture of sexism and misogyny.
 
 
One of the Guerilla Girls’ most well-known posters reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” The poster is signed, “Guerrilla Girls, conscience of the art world.”
 
 
Displaying their works in bold colors and very public places, the Guerilla Girls call attention to the inequalities that exist in the art world. Although they created the Metropolitan Museum poster in 1989, its message is, unfortunately, still extremely relevant. Female artists continue to face discrimination in contemporary American society. 
 
 
Public museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Art have long served as symbols of a state’s cultural capital. They also create a sort of cultural knowledge of what we should value as “art.” 
 
 
By excluding female artists from these spaces, curators devalue the work of female artists. Museum visitors absorb this message (consciously or not) and then perpetuate it in a seemingly endless cycle of underrepresentation. 
 
 
This has devastating repercussions both for artists and consumers of art. Monetary realities reflect the devaluing of female artists, who earn approximately one-third of what their male counterparts do. This represents a very tangible way in which sexism impacts our culture.
 
 
However, the effects of underrepresentation reach beyond money. For example, people have invoked the phrase, “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it,” in conversations about media representation. We can also apply it to the art world. When museums do not present children with the possibility that female artists can be great, they can discourage girls from even trying to make art. 
 
 
The Guerilla Girls have been working for 30 years to increase awareness about the disparities in the art world. I think it’s high time museum owners and curators begin listening to what they have to say. 
 
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].