They typically strike without warning in the dead of night, when few potential witnesses are likely to be around. They wear masks in public to conceal their identity. And their goal is the transformation of some of America's most visible institutions.

Members of a new terrorist organization?

Hardly, though their methods and mission presumably create some uneasiness, if not downright fear, among many of those in power. No, they are the Guerrilla Girls, the self-proclaimed "conscience of the art world." In the five years since its inception, this New York-based group of anonymous artists and arts

administrators has been calling attention to what its members perceive as the endemic racism and sexism of American museums and art galleries -- and drawing an increasing amount of scrutiny in return.

Befitting their backgrounds as well as their targets, the Guerrilla Girls' principal weapon has been art itself: a series of eye-popping black and white posters, adorned with piercing words and damning statistics about the under-representation of blacks and women in the art world. They are also making more and more appearances on the lecture circuit, where a handful show up in outsized gorilla masks; they will appear at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. (see accompanying box.) And they have been the subject of major recent articles in publications ranging from the New York Times to Artforum magazine.

"I think we've gotten our message across," one of the Guerrilla Girls -- all of whom refuse to be identified -- said by phone last week from New York. "We've definitely been more effective than we ever thought we'd be. [But] every year we analyze whether we should keep doing this. The answer we came up with was yes."

Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director for art, admits that having the Guerrilla Girls at the museum is "sort of like inviting the fox into the chicken coop." But she says the museum feels it "should be addressing issues of racism and sexism and politics," adding, "the issue they raise is absolutely valid."

Just how valid was brought home in early 1985, after New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a mammoth exhibit, "International Survey of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture," in which less than 10 percent of the more than 150 artists #F represented were women.

"We were very distressed at that moment," the Guerrilla Girl recalled of an informal group of women artists who had begun getting together. "We thought things had gotten very bad for women artists and artists of color.

"The period of activism in the '70s had been slipping away in the '80s. Suddenly, it felt like we had regressed to an earlier time. We decided to see what we could do."

They quickly settled on the medium of the poster for their message.

"We felt it was not a moment for mass demonstrations," the Guerrilla Girl said. "We figured the most effective way was for quick, unexpected guerrilla action, using the street as our forum."

To grab the attention of passersby, the Guerrilla Girls figured their message had to "very compact," as well as "funny and ironic." To maintain the element of surprise, they would typically tack up the posters late Friday night in New York's art district, where they were sure to be seen by large numbers of weekend gallery-goers.

They also had no hesitation in naming names: One of their earliest posters charged "THESE GALLERIES SHOW NO MORE THAN 10% WOMEN ARTISTS OR NONE AT ALL" and proceeded to list the names of 20 major New York galleries.

Others used numbers to make their point. "HOW MANY WOMEN HAD ONE-PERSON EXHIBITIONS AT NYC MUSEUMS LAST YEAR?" one asked. Its answer: one. Another had a huge blowup of a dollar bill, split by a dotted line; the caption read "WOMEN IN AMERICA EARN ONLY 2/3 OF WHAT MEN DO. WOMEN ARTISTS EARN ONLY 1/3 OF WHAT MEN ARTISTS DO.

"The statistics were surprising to people," the Guerrilla Girl said. "If you hadn't been paying attention, you didn't know how bad things were."

The Guerrilla Girls also put their own spin on contemporary issues. One of their most eye-popping posters played off the debate over the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts. "RELAX, SENATOR HELMS, THE ART WORLD IS YOUR KIND OF PLACE!" it trumpeted, followed by, in smaller letters, the claims that "The number of blacks at an art opening is about the same as at one of your garden parties" and "Most art collectors, like most successful artists, are white males."

Although the Guerrilla Girl says the group has received a good deal of support from black and women artists, she admits that there are "a lot of people in the art world who don't like us."

Some have objected to their insistence on anonymity -- which the Guerrilla Girls defend as an attempt to "keep people's attention on the issue, not our identity." Others question their purpose. Baltimore artist Grace Hartigan, one of the country's most successful contemporary artists, dismisses the Guerrilla Girls as "absurd," saying, "They're not going to change anything." Ms. Hartigan, who will have a solo show at the BMA in December, admits there is the same level of discrimination in the art world as in society at large, but says excellence should be what matters. The Guerrilla Girls, she says, "want the right for women to be as mediocre as men. . . . The best always rise."

But others tout the Guerrilla Girls as an important part of a general debate about elitism in the art world. Indeed, the current issue of Art in America devotes nearly 20 pages to the question, "Are Art Museums Racist?"

"The Guerrilla Girls are part of a larger move to sensitize existing power structure," says the BMA's Ms. Richardson.

As for members of the group, the Guerrilla Girl interviewed said they would like nothing better than to "go back to our studios."

They make that point in characteristic fashion in a poster they created for the current issue of Artforum.

"GUERRILLA GIRLS GO BACK TO THE JUNGLE," it says in large type. "Since the socially responsible, multicultural art world of the 1990s has met the following demands, Guerrilla Girls are pleased to announce their retirement," the poster goes on.

Among those demands are that "All museums and galleries have publicly apologized for years of discrimination" and "The Far Right is undergoing psychoanalysis to determine the real source of its interest in Robert Mapplethorpe."

Get the point?

Guerrilla Girls

at the BMA

When: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Meyerhoff Auditorium

Tickets: $5 general admission; $4 students, seniors and BMA members

Call: 396-6314 for tickets and information.

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