This is a story about living up to what you say you believe, showing by your actions, not just by your words. Modeling such behavior is a group of artworld activists identified only by their attention-getting, jokey name – Gorilla Girls. But they are no joke.

At war

There’s nothing funny about artists shunned because of their anatomy or skin color. Since 1985, the Gorilla Girls have been battling sexism and racism in museums and galleries. Their ammunition takes in books, posters, billboards, and masked public appearances. The latter is where their anonymity comes in: they want your focus on artworld problems, not personalities.

Not kidding

As if to demonstrate their focus on sorry situations vs. self-promotion, they canceled a contract with Phaidon Press to publish their story: “Guerilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly” because the publishing company owner, Leon Black, had “shady dealings” with Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender who trafficked in underage girls.

Who breaks a contract with a global publisher of art books over ethics these days? The Gorilla Girls told Hyperallergic, “The top guy was pissed off, telling us no other authors were voicing our concerns.”

Staying true

Not that turning down a publishing contract was an easy call for these artworld activists. In a statement, they described their project as “our dream Book of all our work from 1985 to today – conceptualized, designed and written by us.” Living up to what they believe, the Gorilla Girls didn’t want their work tainted by even minimal associating with an abuser of underage girls.

This is the same reason the Gorilla Girls call for the Museum of Modern Art to boot Phaidon’s owner from its board of trustees. MoMA is standing fast, and it’s not hard to figure out why. An Artnet report showing that Black donated $40 million to MoMA in 2018 quotes the Gorilla Girls saying that if museums “have to depend on money from the super-rich, they should at least choose board members who make the world a better, not a worse place.”

Clean living

Ah, the seldom sound of idealism.

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This is not to say that the Gorilla Girls are the only stargazers today. The former chairman of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, was forced to resign his chairmanship when artists spooked him with threats of boycotting the museum. It seems his company Safariland sells tear gas used against migrants on the US-Mexican border.

At sea

Activism by artists is a sign of the times. Two years ago,I noted how French artists tried to push the Louvre to reject oil companies' funding because the fossil fuel industry was ruining land, sea, and air. To make their point, several artists laid under Theodore Gericault's “Raft of the Medusa,” the harrowing image of dead and dying sailors on a makeshift life raft after their ship sank. The artists’ performance suggested that planet earth was at sea, too.

Female complaint

Of course, it will take more than lying on a museum floor to change the world. The Gorilla Girls, originally called Guerilla Girls, seem to have a useful strategy – irregular warfare – ambushing museums to do the right thing.

As Guy Adam reported in the Independent in 2009, MoMA grants the Gorilla Girls a broader audience for their concerns, including an exhibition of their posters like the one picturing a nude female by Jean-Auguste Ingres titled La Grande Odalisque under the caption, “Do Women Have to Be Naked To Get Into The Met?”