The Guerrilla Girls tossed out some hot issues from the stage last Wednesday in the Carnegie Lecture Hall:
• The disproportionately low representation of women artists and diversity in major museum exhibitions and collections.
• The unseemly influence that well-heeled board members wield on museums.
• The propensity of media to judge the worth of an artwork by its sales figures.
"We stand for the conscience of the art world," said two founding members of the organization that formed in 1985 to challenge imbalance in a field where women make up the majority of students but the chief players are predominantly men.
Art and culture stand for the best of human achievement, but there is a dark side, infiltrated by "poseurs, insider traders and crooks," the women said. The art market has become "the playground of the 1 percent" who manipulate which artists are considered worthwhile.
Patronage has benefitted museums by supporting programming and contributing important works to collections. However, "the system is ripe for gaming and corruption," they said. One example they cited was when a less than ethical board member takes advantage of his position to promote artists whose works he owns to make them more valuable. Or when support to and valuation by a venue become quid pro quo, as when a major museum followed a multi-million dollar donation from a large fashion house by mounting an exhibition of work by its designers.
The media were faulted for not being more discerning in their coverage of art.
"In the media, artwork is not talked about for the content of the work but because of the success of the artist. That's pathetic if it's about dialogue," one woman said.
People then deduce that the most expensive work is the most important. In reality, reputations are "propped up. It's about branding. It's about frenzy."
The Guerrilla Girls presentation was part of the continuing "What Are Museums For?" series begun by Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky in 2010 to make the museum more transparent to its audience. The two women who spoke are longtime friends of Ms. Zelevansky, but their identities were concealed behind the gorilla masks that members wear to protect their anonymity.
"Frida Kahlo" and "Kathe Kollwitz" -- the Guerilla Girls assume names of deceased women artists -- presented a spirited history of the movement followed by a question-and-answer session led by Ms. Zelevansky. The enthusiastic audience of 600 included young and graying, male and female members.
While art world culture is a central concern of the group, their activism crosses into other areas of progressive politics where discrimination or misogyny surface.
The group's first action was hanging posters in the middle of the night in New York City's Soho neighborhood. On Wednesday, Ms. Zelevansky announced from the stage that The Carnegie had recently purchased the Guerrilla Girls poster portfolio for its collection. That comprises a boxed portfolio of 89 posters and projects created between 1985 and 2012, signed by founding members.
A 1990 poster reads: "Guerilla Girls Pop Quiz. Q. If February is Black History Month and March is Women's History Month, what happens the rest of the year? A. Discrimination."
Their 1988 poster, which has been translated into several languages, lists "The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist," including "Working without the pressure of success."
"Almost weekly, a woman veterinary scientist, musician, mortuary scientist ... writes to tell us that this poster is the story of her life, too," one Guerrilla Girl said.
An Estrogen Bomb poster, updated in 2012, reads: "Drop it on Washington and the super-rich trying to take over our country will throw down their big guns, hug each other, apologize, and start to work on human rights, education, health care and an end to income inequality."
With the Carnegie International returning in the fall, an audience member asked about the male-female relationship in recent exhibitions. Ms. Zelevansky reported that in the 1995 International there were 11 women among 36 exhibiting artists; in 1999, 14 of 40; 2004, 13 of 37; 2008, 11 of 39. There will be 17 of 38 artists exhibiting this year, she reported.
"That's getting close to 50 percent so I think that's pretty good," Ms. Zelevansky said.
Decades after their first middle-of-the-night postings, the group grapples with the implications of moving inside the institutions they protested as outsiders. "But we want to reach a large audience, and it's a thrill to critique an institution right on its own walls."
Asked what audience members can do to change the system, the Guerrilla Girls advised: Be a loser, it's not about egos. Be crazy, change people's minds and do it in an unforgettable way. Be anonymous. Be an outsider. Just do one thing and keep chipping away. Stick fliers in books in the museum store. Don't make only expensive art.
"Show museums tough love. Demand ethics. Make sure your favorite museum casts a wider net and collects the whole history of our culture. Complain. Complain. Complain.
"Use the f-word -- feminism. We think it's crazy that so many who believe in the basic principles of feminism don't consider themselves feminist.
"We believe that the f-word is the future."
Lange and internment
Photographer Dorothea Lange is most widely known for her piercing images of suffering Dust Bowl Americans, but during her career she traveled far beyond that wind-stripped world in geography and subject. At 5 p.m. Thursday Lange biographer Linda Gordon will talk about "Dorothea Lange's Censored Photographs" in the Adamson Wing, Baker Hall 136A, Carnegie Mellon University.
Lange was hired by the U.S. Army to document the forced resettlement of persons of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during World War II. While a majority of Americans purportedly supported the action, Lange's approximately 800 photographs were so critical that the Army censored them. The images range from individuals in their original surroundings to life in the spartan camps.
A tree-shaded home of a physician contrasts with wooden horse stalls turned into camp barracks for families. A man is shown boarding up his San Francisco storefront in preparation to leave. A 23-year-old soldier in U.S. military uniform is pictured with his widowed mother in a strawberry field on land the children had leased for her. He had been furloughed to help his family evacuate.
In 2006, Ms. Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro included a number of the internment images in their book "Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment." Ms. Gordon is professor of history at New York University and author of the awarded "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits."
The talk is free and is preceded by a 4:30 p.m. reception.
Art in Bloom
Art in Bloom sweeps into Carnegie Museum of Art next weekend, a harbinger of the spring show that's waiting just below the surface outside. Floral arrangements will be created by 39 regional garden clubs, florists and local organizations to complement artworks in the permanent collection.
The weekend's big event is the preview gala, "Skyline After Dark," which will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. April 4, beginning with cocktails and light fare in a garden setting within the Hall of Sculpture and ending with dancing, coffee and confections ($150). At 8:30 p.m. the Friends of Junior Ambassadors Dance begins in the hall, continuing with drinks, desserts and dancing until 11 p.m. ($75).
"Gracious Living and Stylish Entertainment" is the theme of a presentation by Danielle Rollins followed by a luncheon from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 5 ($80; $50 for presentation only). A book signing will precede the talk from 9 to 10 a.m. in the Carnegie Music Hall Foyer. Ms. Rollins is a contributing editor for Veranda and Southern Living magazines and the lifestyle editor for online magazine Luxe Life.
Tickets for all events may be purchased at 412-622-3325 or www.cmoa.org.
The floral arrangements remain through April 7 in the galleries and Hall of Sculpture, free with museum admission, which is $17.95; seniors $14.95; students and children 3-18, $11.95; children under 3 and members free. From 4 to 8 p.m. Thursdays, museum admission is $10, $5 for children, and visitors may view all of the arrangements on April 4 except those in the Hall of Sculpture. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, and until 8 p.m. Thursday.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.