2016 Changemakers: Guerilla Girls Takeover

Photography by Angela Jimenez, Courtesy of Walker Art Center

“Art has the role and opportunity to make people pause, to bring people together who maybe don’t think the same ways. Art can be that meeting ground.”
– Kerry Morgan

The idea emerged independently in different places – in conversations between women. Megan talked with Kerry, and they talked with Pat and Liz, and Olga contacted Liz. As the women connected, they expanded their thinking, creating a network of women artists and organizations to concoct a plan to bring the Guerrilla Girls, long-time arts activists, to “take over” the Twin Cities.

In 2016, the Guerrilla Girls celebrated their 30th anniversary of shaking up the art world by exposing sexism, racism, gender issues and corruption. Based in New York City, the activists use humor, graphic posters and live events to draw attention to the inequities and lack of opportunities for women artists. They wear gorilla masks and adopt names of women artists, choosing to be anonymous.

Megan Johnston had worked on an all-Ireland Guerrilla Girls project as a Ph.D. student and lead curator in Northern Ireland in 2008. While teaching a Gender, Art and Society course at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in 2013, she asked if the school might be interested in coordinating a similar project. She and Kerry Morgan, director of gallery and exhibition programs at MCAD, talked about how they could honor the Guerrilla Girls’ work, and reached out to Patricia Olson at St. Catherine University, and Elizabeth Armstrong at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). Independently, Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center, reached out to Armstrong, with a similar interest. All the dots began to connect, eventually including current Mia art liaison Nicole Soukup.

The grassroots effort grew to include the Weisman Museum, local arts organizations, colleges and universities, individual artists and curators, local art galleries and venues – a rare collaboration.

“When we started this conversation, we thought that a conventional museum survey did not necessarily feel appropriate – to institutionalize artists whose works have always forthrightly been about institutional critique,” Viso says. They looked at using not only formal institutions, but also smaller, grassroots organizations and public spaces. “We also did not want to just revisit the past. The Guerrilla Girls wanted to look forward and engage younger generations as well as respond to pertinent issues active in our local community.”

For nearly two years, a steering committee met monthly, growing to 20 members. In feminist fashion, they invited widespread participation in the planning and adopted a non-hierarchical decision-making process in using a collaborative approach. They made room for a diversity of ideas and opinions about what this project could be.

The actual Takeover was a success. On January 21, 2016, the Guerrilla Girls, with the local artist activists, launched the Takeover with galas at several venues. Through March 11 there were 33 exhibitions, 22 receptions, 14 panels/presentations, 11 performances, five art project/community gatherings and two film screenings – all surrounding issues and raising questions about women and art. More than 240 artists and 80 high school students participated in the “Made Here” project, when storefront windows along Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis were taken over during the first week of March. And, on March 5, perhaps the culmination of the Takeover, the Guerrilla Girls spoke at an event at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

“If I learned anything from the Guerrilla Girls collaboration, it’s that two voices are better than one. The more voices, opinions, backgrounds and points of view presented make for a richer experience for everyone,” Morgan says. “Art has the role and opportunity to make people pause, to bring people together who maybe don’t think the same ways. Art can be that meeting ground.”

Learn more about women artists:
The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art by the Guerrilla Girls
For more about the Takeover of the Twin Cities: www.ggtakeover.com