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Influential 'Guerrilla' art finds home in archives at Rutgers

Two of the original Guerrilla Girls pose by some of the original posters, at the opening reception for the Recent Work by Guerrilla Girls, Guerrilla Girls Broadband, and Guerrilla Girls on Tour! exhibition in June.
Two reception attendees view some of the original Guerrilla Girls posters on display in the exhibition.

In the mid 1980s a group of women in the art world in New York City discovered that, by using ironic humor and anonymity, they could draw attention to the serious inequities faced by women artists. And so the Guerrilla Girls got started and the art world has not been the same since.

Recently one of the original Guerrilla Girls, looking for an ideal home for a series of the group's initial posters, zeroed in on a university renowned internationally for highlighting women artists and fostering research into their work. And that's how a collection of 30 original Guerrilla Girls posters came to the Rutgers University Libraries.

Founded in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls, whose members appear in public in gorilla masks and use the names of noted deceased women artists from previous generations, began raising attention to their concerns with posters that pointed out the gross inequities faced by women artists in respected museums and art galleries throughout the region. Their posters, while relatively simple in design, were distinctive because they unabashedly named names and used basic statistics to humorously make their points.

One such poster asked: "How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?" and pointed out that the Guggenheim, Metropolitan, and Whitney museums had none while the Museum of Modern Art had held only one. Another poster criticized New York Times art critic John Russell, who stated that women artists were well represented in art shows, by noting the paucity of coverage of such shows in the Times over a four year period.

The Guerrilla Girls soon branched out and engaged in street performances, spoke on panel discussions at art conferences, and took on other issues beyond the local art world, such as abortion rights, Republican Party attitudes toward women, the lack of female award winners receiving Oscars, rape trials of famous celebrities, low recognition of women artists in Europe, and other feminist concerns.

The Guerrilla Girls received acclaim from numerous noted individuals and organizations, in recognition of their creative tactics and their impact. The National Organization of Women gave their Susan B. Anthony Award to the group in 1987 and the same year New York Magazine termed them as one of the four 'powers-that-be' in the art world. Gloria Steinem praised the Guerrilla Girls, stating that they are a "group that symbolized the best of feminism in this country… they force us to rethink everything from art to zaniness."

Writing in The Guardian of London in June 2006, art critic Zoe Williams described the Guerrilla Girls: "They're engaging because they're fast talking and reactive and witty but most of all because they are making a very clear, unarguable point - that women are underrepresented in the art world." The group has also received favorable reviews in respected scholarly publications such as Feminist Formations (formerly the NWSA Journal), Feminist Studies, and Women's Studies in Communication, to name a few.

In 2011 an original Guerrilla Girl who uses the name Liubov Popova, a Russian avant-garde woman artist in the early 20th century, was looking for a suitable home for 30 posters from the first seven years of the Guerrilla Girls work (1985-1992). She was familiar with the well-regarded work of the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art (IWA) so she contacted IWA's co-directors, Ferris Olin and Judith Brodsky.

Olin and Brodsky suggested that the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists in the Rutgers University Libraries was the most appropriate place for the posters. The donation would situate these historic documents in an institution well known for regularly holding exhibitions by women artists, fostering research about women artists, housing rich archival collections of germinal women artists, and drawing faculty members with broad expertise in this area.

Liubov Popova donated the posters to Olin and Brodsky who, in turn, placed the materials in the Miriam Schapiro Archives.

Established in 2006 by the University Libraries in partnership with IWA, the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists is a large collection of archives, manuscripts, and reference materials that forms a sub-collection of the Special Collections and University Archives' manuscript holdings. It comprises the papers of individual artists, records of artists' organizations, and reference files. The collection was named in honor of painter Miriam Schapiro, one of the founders of the feminist art movement.

The Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists has been used as a source for primary research materials in undergraduate and graduate seminars at Rutgers. In the late 1990s Hilary Robinson, a visiting scholar from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, conducted extensive research in the archives to gather material for her book, Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, published in 2001 by Blackwell Publishers.

The Rutgers University Libraries are the proud hosts as well of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series (DWAS) in the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, the oldest continuous running exhibition space in the United States dedicated to making visible the work of emerging and established contemporary women artists. The Libraries also host the exhibitions for the Estelle Lebowitz Visiting Artist-in-Residence Lectureship, which showcases the work of a renowned contemporary woman artist and arranges for students and faculty to meet with the artist in classes and at public lectures.

The 30 original Guerrilla Girls posters, now held in the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists, are included in an exhibit, Feminist Masked Avengers: Recent Work by Guerrilla Girls, Guerrilla Girls Broadband, and Guerrilla Girls on Tour! in the Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries which opened on June 1st. The exhibit will run through September 7th. A closing reception is planned from 5 - 7 pm on September 7th.

For more information on and access to the Miriam Schapiro Archives on Women Artists, please contact the Libraries' Special Collections and University Archives by phone at 732/932-7006 or via their website.

For more information on the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, the Estelle Lebowitz Visiting Artist-in-Residence Lectureship, and Rutgers Institute for Women and Art, please contact the Institute offices by phone at 732/932-3726 or via email at womenart@rci.rutgers.edu

For more information on the Guerrilla Girls, please see their website at www.guerrillagirls.com





Posted July 27, 2011; July 29, 2011