Count me in

Count Me In: Taking the Guerrilla Girls to Dutch Museums

IN CONVERSATION WITH PAULINE SALET

The Guerrilla Girls have been featured in several Dutch museums before. In 2016, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven organised a retrospective exhibition of the artist and activist group, showing their work from their start in 1985 until 2012. A few years later, in March 2018, the Guerrilla Girls visited the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam themselves, as they were invited by Mama Cash as part of their annual Feminist Festival taking place on International Women’s Day.

The Guerrilla Girls are therefore no strangers to Dutch museums and their public, and it is surprising that an investigation such as that of the Guerrilla Girls, with a relatively simple research method, has not been performed yet in The Netherlands: that of counting the number of female and male artists in the museums’ collections on display. In order to fill this gap, the research presented in this article serves as a sample among eight Dutch museums to map out the state of the art in the Netherlands.

Following the example of the Guerrilla Girls, I have counted the current main collections currently on display in the museums, as well as temporary solo-exhibitions in eight Dutch museums: the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the Groninger Museum in Groningen, the Drents Museum in Assen, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle. These museums were chosen based on their prominence, visitor numbers, and location in The Netherlands. [1]

In the policy plans of these museums, recurring themes were the aim for positioning the museum as a space for telling stories, a space where connections to and between different parts of society can be made. Some museums even emphasised their aim for promoting “diversity” and their intention to “de-modernise and de-colonise” (van Abbe) the museum. Yet to what extent are the plans reflected in the outcome of this research?

Counting Collections

Combining the collections of all eight museums, these museums show the work of 926 artists, of which 779 are male artists and 124 are female artists. This translates into an 84,1% of the artists being male, and female artists making up only 13,4% of the total number of artists. I put the focus of this research on individual artists, leaving the artist collectives or collaborations that make up the other 2,5% out of this research.

The largest gap was found in Museum de Fundatie, where at the time of this research no female artists were featured in the main collection on display, which consisted of the work of 25 male artists. The Stedelijk Museum had a smaller, yet still significant gap: 75,9% of the art on display was made by male artists, as opposed to 20,5% by female artists (or: 233 men and 63 women).

Apart from the numbers, a few other things are noteworthy about the main collections. Overall, many male artists were often featured with multiple works of art, whereas there were often only one or two pieces per female artist on display. What is important to take into account here is thus not only the presence of a certain artist, but also the frequency of exhibiting certain artists. The top 20 of most frequently featured artists among all eight museums consists of only male artists. Only three women are part of the top 50 (Marlene Dumas at place 22, Marie-Louise von Moteiczky at 37 and Charlotte Schleiffert at place 40). Artists such as Piet Mondriaan, Gerrit Rietveld, and Jan Sluijters (featured with 64, 51 and 20 works respectively) dominate the museum spaces. Mondriaan, Rietveld, and Sluijters are regarded as canonical artists. They are recurring names throughout all eight museums, showing that the presence of their work is not museum specific.

 The imbalance between male and female artists in the main collections of museums, as shown above, can partly be explained by which artworks are available to a museum. Museums are dependent on what has been collected in the past decades. New acquisitions are expensive and gaps in collection are not easily filled with new works of art. Temporary exhibitions can therefore provide a solution to this problem of representation, through temporary loans from other museums or private collections. Furthermore, with temporary exhibitions, museums are able to highlight certain artists and topics, giving them a special place for representation outside the main collection. It is, therefore, worth the effort of mapping out the attention given to male and female artists in temporary exhibitions as well and to take a look at who has been the subject in a solo exhibition.

Between 2013 and 2018, the eight museums featured in this research have hosted 341 solo exhibitions, of which 240 featured male artists, as opposed to 102 of female artists, resulting in respectively 70,4% and 29,9%. Looking at the museums individually, most museums do not deviate much from this average of 70-75% men and around 30% – or less – female artists. With 53,3% male and 46,7% female artists given solo exhibitions, the Van Abbemuseum exceeds this trend, showing a positive step towards a goal explicitly mentioned in their policy plan: to pay attention to an equal representation of both male and female artists.

Still, the average of those solo exhibitions shows that these temporary spaces are not necessarily utilised to compensate for the gap in the main collections. The Drents Museum is the only museum that, in 2015, hosted no solo exhibitions by male artists. The same cannot be said for female artists, as there were four years between 2013 and 2018 in which four museums, the Drents Museum, Museum de Fundatie, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and the Groninger Musuem, hosted no solo-exhibitions by female artists at all.

Between quality and quantity

The data show that there is a slight increase in representation of female artists in temporary exhibitions as opposed to the main collections: 29,9% female artists as opposed to 13,1% overall. Although this is slightly more and even though this differs per museum, this is still nowhere near equal representation.

Museums are spaces where the canon of art history is on display, as well as places where the canon is reproduced. However, this canon is not unproblematic or neutral in itself, since it is a system based on inclusion of some and, more importantly, the exclusion of many others. This might be taken as a reason for the lack of availability of artworks by female artists, since women were historically excluded from art spaces such as museums and academies.  However, the canon and, consequently, what is part of a museum’s collection have often been marked by what has been called the ‘quality debate’. This quality debate concerns questions of discrimination towards certain artists. Through this debate, the problem of unequal representation is taken away from the individuals in positions of power over selection processes. Instead, the assumption is made that art of great quality will reveal itself and that the work that will be shown will be chosen purely based on its quality, disregarding any prior prejudices, exclusionary biases, and differences in access opportunities for artists.

Noteworthy is that this same argument is often used as an excuse whenever institutions or organisations are called out, as they claim that their selection is guided by quality only. However, what is important to take into account here is that this emphasis on quality as becoming evident disregards decision-making as a biased process that does not exist outside exclusionary power structures. What we are familiar with, and what we see as good enough to belong to the canon is based upon previous notions of quality. What is visible constitutes what we get used to. What is left to us from previous generations does not only constitute the current collection of a museum: without interventions we also inherit additional patterns about quality that have brought about exclusion.

Counting as a Strategic Tool

The data gathered show a lack of representation of female artists in the eight Dutch museums included in this research. This lack of representation is not in line with what museums propose in their policy plans, where their aims are towards becoming more inclusive spaces that tell different and diverse stories, and where the artworks shown are a means of connecting between different parts of society.

In their Wealth and Power poster (2016), the Guerrilla Girls pointed out the position of power that museums hold in shaping what belongs in a museum. By pointing this out, they touched upon the powerful position museums have in the reproduction of the canon, and in maintaining imbalances that are indicative of structural problems in representation. This investigation has attempted to do the same in the Netherlands.

This research is limited in its data. It exposes sexism, but not racism, and is not sufficient for mapping out other aspects of identity formation that might be present in a museum space. Counting male and female artists categorises people according binary notions of gender. While this is useful for exposing hegemonic discourses, there is a need for developing tools that incorporate a more intersectional approach towards mapping out inequalities. Additionally, the data on artists only do not represent the many ways in which museums implement their goals set in policy plans; the artworks themselves, of course, also play a key role here.

Thus, the data presented here should only be taken as an indication, a sample, and a start for further research. Even though it is limited, this method of counting can be a means of gathering evidence of exclusion in the art world. It should be regarded as a strategic tool. Exposing a problem and naming it is the beginning of many steps that can be taken towards museums becoming more inclusive spaces. Putting inequality of representation into numbers is a starting point, and an opportunity for museums to critically reflect upon their own collections. This shows that the method taken up by the Guerrilla Girls many years ago is still relevant today, in order to create awareness around mechanisms and processes of in- and exclusion.

Further research on the position of female artists in four disciplines of the Dutch art scene was commissioned by Mama Cash and includes data on other disciplines as well. More info can be found here.

The results of this research were recently published in De Volkskrant.

 

Pauline Salet (1992) is a recent graduate of the research master Gender Studies at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on the intersections of storytelling, representation, literature and visual arts, with a special interest in museum spaces, This article contains a part of her thesis ‘Count Me In: a Feminist Critique on the State of the Art in Eight Dutch Museums’ (2018).

Image: It’s Even Worse In Europe, Guerrilla Girls (1986) courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com


[1] I visited most of the museums multiple times. The dates on which I visited the museums are as follows: Van Abbemuseum on 21/3/18 and 11/4/18; Boijmans van Beuningen on 22/3/18 and 11/4/18; Stedelijk Museum on 26/3/18 and 12/4/18; Centraal Museum on 28/3/18 and 3/5/18; Groninger Museum on 28/3/18 and 13/4; Drents Museum on 13/4/18; Museum de Fundatie on 13/4/18; Gemeentemuseum on 8/6/18. The data presented in this article are thus based on the collections on display on the days of my visits and might have changed in the meantime. Museum de Fundatie has two locations; this research incudes the one in the city centre of Zwolle only.