The truck carrying a 200-square-foot billboard of a nude woman with a gorilla’s head drove up to the Museum of Fine Arts front entrance.
“Do women have to be naked to get into Boston museums?” a message on the image read, with a line noting that only 11 percent of the artists represented in the MFA’s collection were women.
The Guerrilla Girls, famous for decades of protesting art world inequalities, had come to town. The feminist collective is featured in a show at the Montserrat College of Art Gallery in Beverly through December, and director and curator Leonie Bradbury came up with the idea of the billboard. The art collective chose the message, a slight adaptation of a protest poster famously aimed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1989. A hired driver spread word.
The rolling art protest-promotion certainly got attention during its first run Sept. 7. Artists noticed it rambling through town and parked for a time in SoWa, the arts district south of Washington Street. So did the MFA, which responded by tweeting that “33 percent of artists in our contemporary wing are women . . . so we’re improving!”
For Bradbury, director of the tiny gallery with an annual budget of just $37,500 and about 4,000 visitors a year, the billboard had two purposes: Make a provocative political statement and create buzz for the exhibition. That’s why she spent $2,200 on the truck, which will also make a second run into Boston on Oct. 5, timed with “First Fridays” festivities in SoWa.
“A lot of people have heard of [Montserrat],” said Bradbury. “I’m hoping this will be one of those occasions they will actually come.”
Jen Mergel, the MFA’s senior curator of contemporary art, said this week that in reality, the tally on the contemporary wing’s walls is closer to 40 percent. But she did not shy away from the larger point.
“It’s interesting to say it’s fair criticism,” said Mergel. “What it is is a fact right now.”
But Mergel said that figure is shifting, as the museum continues to build its collection. After the billboard appeared, she looked up the MFA’s acquisitions for this year so far, and found that about 40 percent were works by women artists.
The MFA was not caught off guard by the billboard drive-by. In Boston, where museum officials rarely if ever criticize one another, Bradbury made sure to warn the MFA ahead of time. She did not want to be perceived as criticizing the museum and, in an interview at Montserrat, made it clear that she didn’t tell the Guerrilla Girls what to put on their billboard.
When she realized the MFA would be targeted, Bradbury called Mergel.
“It’s not very guerrilla, but it was a professional courtesy,” said Bradbury. “Obviously, the institution here is nervous about the billboard being perceived as our institution critiquing them, the MFA. It’s being respectful of your colleagues.”
Earlier this month, as the billboard truck drove to the MFA and also circled past art galleries during Boston’s popular “First Fridays” event, Bradbury and Mergel met up and even took pictures in front of the nude image. Then they went to dinner at Myers + Chang.
“It kind of brought us together, actually,” said Bradbury.
In that spirit, the MFA didn’t respond defensively. Mergel praised the protest image and said she was looking forward to the return of the billboard next month.
“I thought the image was classic Guerrilla Girls,” she said. “Beautifully composed, sort of pitch-perfect, iconic. It was almost a bonus to know we were going to be part of the project.”
The Guerrilla Girls emerged in 1985 when a group of artists protested the gender gap in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over the years, the members — who go by the names of dead female artists to mask their true identities and who decline to reveal their numbers — have used billboards, magazines, public letters, video, and other art tools to state their case. Some of the work is on display at Montserrat in “Not Ready to Make Nice, Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond,” a show organized by Columbia College Chicago. Montserrat will also host a symposium next month featuring appearances by two of the collective’s founding members.
One of them — who goes by Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter — said the MFA protest was meant to expose the historical gender gap at most museums and galleries.
“For the longest time, great efforts were made to keep women out of the art world,” she said. “There have always been women artists. That’s for sure. These museums weren’t acquiring them. They were run by collectors, entrepreneurs who had a kind of prejudice against women artists and women of color.”
After agreeing to Bradbury’s idea for a billboard, “Kahlo,” who lives in upstate New York, came to Boston to visit the MFA in July to do what she calls a “weenie count.” The Guerrilla Girls like to back up their opinions with data. In this case, Kahlo and a second founding member joined Bradbury and two others to count the works on the walls. They determined that 89 percent of the MFA’s displayed works were by men.
Kahlo said she was pleased to hear of the museum’s modern-day approach, which is meant to collect artists based on quality, not gender.
“Yes, they are doing better in the contemporary section and that’s great and we’re going to hold them to their word that they’ll do better,” she said. “We really are about creating a dialogue.”
That certainly happened during the first run of the billboard truck. Georgie Friedman, a Boston artist who works with video and photographs, saw it as she walked through the SoWa gallery district. She noted that she was with Rachel Perry Welty, a Boston-based conceptual artist whose photograph “Lost in My Life (Fruit Stickers) 2010,” is currently on display at the MFA.
“I thought it was great,” said Friedman. “In general, it’s a systemic problem. As an educator, too, I just see the percentage of women in art school is often greater than men, but it just seems as if male artists are shown more. It takes someone like the Guerrilla Girls to look at the numbers.”