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by Birgit Bosold (text) and Vera Hofmann (visuals)

How Could This Have Happened? Reflexions on Current Programming Strategies of Schwules Museum Berlin

For more than 30 years now, New York’s Guerrilla Girls have been decrying this scandalous fact: "Women have to be naked to get into museums!” With numerous interventions, they have highlighted massive gender and ethnic biases in museums around the world. The Girls still have every reason to rage. In their intervention into the 40th anniversary of the Museum Ludwig Cologne in 2015, only 11% of the museum’s collection were works by women,*(the asterisk is intended to suggest the insufficiency of an identity term we must nonetheless use) only 3% were from women of color, only 20% of the solo shows since 1989 were dedicated to female* artists, and only 1% to nonwhite female artists. Despite the fact that 14% of Cologne's population has a "migrant background,” only 1% of the collection of the city's most important art museum contains works from such artists. The Guerrilla Girls ́ campaign in Cologne also addressed the spike in funding of museums worldwide by private collectors. They exposed this as a smart business model, as the collectors themselves get control of prices and hence their profits within the art business while simultaneously being acclaimed as generous philanthropists. Art historian Kathryn Brown calls this “philanthrocapitalism."

In December 2017, the biggest-ever empirical survey of gender discrimination in the European and US-American art worlds was published.[1] According to its database, which contains 2.7 million transactions in the period from 2000 to 2017 submitted by over 1,000 galleries representing 100,000 artists, only 5% of the documented artists were female,* only 5% of the documented sales involved works of art by women,* only 13.7% of the artists represented by European and US galleries are female, and the sales revenue from the top two artists, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, far outstripped the combined revenue of all the women* artists put together. To this day, not a single woman* has made it into international art’s so-called top league, despite the fact that the proportion of female* students in art schools has been a steady 50% since 1983.

Looking for someone to blame? Of course it is not the sole fault of collectors, galleries, and museums that these ugly truths persist. Their decisions mirror prevailing social norms, actively contributing to the perpetuation of dominant oppressive structures such as misogyny and sexism. In fact, in this particular context the invalidation of women’s* perspectives and positions, creativity, work, and reputations is even quantifiable. Since Linda Nochlin asked, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”in her famous 1971 essay, little has changed.[2] The notion of the single male genius is as predominant as ever, a conclusion shared by the authors of the survey.[3]

Nothing new. All these facts and figures are well-known and well-documented. But maybe there is something else which is rarely addressed. In order to get acquainted with this issue, please participate in a small test: name, just on the fly, the ten most important queer artists in your personal view. For the moment it doesn't matter what "queer" really means, nor if they are contemporary, classical modernists, or old masters. It also doesn't matter why they are “important." I assume a list will form immediately in your mind. Perhaps you can guess what this test is about: How many of the artists on your list are female,* how many POC, how many are both of these, how many are disabled persons? Would the list have been different if we had asked you to name the 10 most important queer male artists and the 10 most important female ones? How much time would it have taken to prepare the list of the female artists, how much in comparison the male list? How big would you estimate is the difference in income between both of the lists, or the difference in the prices their works attract? And why is this?

While every reasonably well-informed person can easily name a line-up of artists who made an international career while employing "gay" motifs in their work—such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Elmgreen & Dragset, Henrik Olesen, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, or Felix Gonzales-Torres, to name only a few—it is very challenging to identify internationally renowned artists who refer to lesbian* longing, lifeworlds, and experiences. It's perfectly obvious: the "invisibility" of lesbian* desire within the art world is primarily the result of the marginalization of female* artists. But also within discourses and exhibitions on so-called "women's art" or "feminist" art, lesbian positions and even biographical information are very often swept under the carpet. Is this sort of erasure a move made by the curators, calculated or otherwise? Or is labeling their work "lesbian" so stigmatizing that hardly any artists stress their personal life in their work or discuss their sexuality in biographical documents?

Since homosexuality is generally tolerated today throughout the western world, gay (white, cis) men can obviously profit from a "queer dividend" within the art world. In addition to Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon is part of the top 25 artists (the top 0.03%) mentioned in the survey above, whereas other queers, non-cis, POC, disabled, as well as lesbian artists are prevented from achieving the same status. The top league of female artists indeed contains some "queers" such as Georgia O’Keefe, Cindy Sherman, Tamara de Lempicka, or Agnes Martin. But without thorough research, we assume that most of these works are focused on feminist or general queer perspectives rather than specifically referring to something you could name “lesbian.” Whereas gay men profit from the “glitter premium,” dyke aesthetics and issues are still considered unhip, less charming, unsexy, less appealing, or in any case something which contains "un-" or “-less." In fact, there are many reasons to react with “un-“ or “-less.” Dykes are possibly widely regarded as “humorless,” just because they are simply much less likely to smile away the outrageous impositions of misogyny and sexism women* are confronted with all the time.

But it gets even worse. This fundamental attitude is still found in queer culture, art and curating, making the essential position of dykes, lesbian feminists, and queer women* “invisible” and erasing the constitutive role they have had within women’s liberation, gay liberation, and queer politics. It's well-known that major "queer" art shows overwhelmingly feature gay male artists. Take, for example, "Queer British Art" (2017, Tate London), "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian,Tacoma Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, 2011/12) or "The Eighth Square" (Museum Ludwig Köln, 2006). Apart from reflecting prevailing social norms within the "malestream" world, these curatorial strategies enable such norms to pervade queer or LGBTIQ culture, politics, and communities.

The major historical show Homosexuality_ies (curated by Birgit Bosold, Dorothée Brill and Detlef Weitz), which Schwules Museum put on in cooperation with Deutsches Historisches Museum (the National Historical Museum of the Federal Republic of Germany) in 2015, tried to at least disrupt the persistent gender gap, despite falling short in realizing a fully intersectional practice: “Homosexuality_ies undermines the usual perception that equates homosexuals with gay men, emphasizing the vital roles lesbian activists have played in all these developments.”[4] The predominantly enthusiastic feedback from the lesbian community, and occasional openly articulated negative reviews of gay men who judged the show to be too “lesbian,” might indicate that we rocked it somehow. The show wasn't overwhelmingly "lesbian" at all: Visibility and accentuation were just divided fairly. Apart from highlighting female and trans* artists this means, for example, within the curatorial narrative we featured the importance of feminist issues such as the critical questioning of the sexual revolution, more than might have been expected within a show on the history of gay liberation.


Fig.1: Vera Hofmann, bloxberg, 2018.

Fig.2: Vera Hofmann, cube, 2018.

Fig.3: Vera Hofmann, split, 2018.

Fig.4: Vera Hofmann, oese, 2018.

Fig.5: Vera Hofmann, caring for conflict, 2018.


Sadly, these findings don't only describe conditions within the cultural sphere but rather reflect massive gender and ethnic biases within queer communities in general, where the allocation of resources, impact, and visibility is severely unequal. Don't we deserve something better within "our" communities than the game which is going on in the malestream world? Wasn't there once a radical alternative vision of what "queer" could mean? How could it happen, that the "queer dividend" coming out from the hard—and in some regards successful—struggles of many generations of queer activists was divided so unjustly?

AIDS fundamentally changed the way in which homosexuality was socially negotiated in the global north. It not only altered western societies in general, specifically in terms of public health policies, but also the communities themselves. Confronted with a political climate which was shaped by severe homophobia and defamation of sexual outsiders, activists formed new improbable coalitions. Gay men, lesbians, transgender people, sex-positive feminists, sex workers, drug users, and members of the BDSM community united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, a struggle they increasingly understood as fighting for their sexual freedom and culture, their lifestyles, and against discrimination and marginalization caused by societal hostility to sexual and gender nonconformity. Drawing on the practices of the feminist activists, who created the Women's Health Centers in the 1970s, HIV/AIDS activists utilized their own knowledge and experiences to address the AIDS crises through creating innovative public health strategies. They managed to establish more than just a functioning infrastructure over a short period of time. AIDS also became the catalyst for policies of solidarity and acknowledgement beyond boundaries of identification, establishing non-normative possibilities which we today call “queer.”

This is the conventional narrative around the birth of "queer" communities. Could it be possible that the AIDS crisis wasn't at all the catalyst for fabulous, subversive new alliances, but rather caused the hijacking of the radical queer resistance by white, cis-male players? This was a hotly contested point put forward in Dean Spade's recent project Queer Dreams and Nonprofit Blues.[5] Boosted by significant amounts of funding for the professionalization of self-controlled infrastructure, male gay advocacy took over queer movements to push through "bourgeois" civil rights projects such as gay marriage. Looking at the history of lesbian-gay coalitions back in the nineties in Germany, we can in fact find numerous indications that something like this occurred. In any case, feminist positions, and along with them, any critical questioning of masculinity, generally vanished from the political agenda of the main lesbian-gay civil rights organizations. The AIDS crisis massively increased the acceptance of gay men, who gained broad support within the liberal section of society. Considering the developments within the art world, it is obvious that the AIDS crisis also was the main catalyst for visibility and acknowledgement of "gay" art.

To begin addressing the current situation, the Schwules Museum has designated the 2018 program to be YEAR OF THE WOMEN.*

"Exhibitions, lectures, controversial debates, and riveting readings are in store, just as you’d expect from a museum; but also some surprises, such as healing rituals and actions—for the year will be feminist not only in content, but also in form. We see the program currently launching at the Schwules Museum as an experimental field with transformative potential, the goal of which is a more future-oriented and participative (museum) practice. As a grassroots organization (i.e. one lead and organized by activists), the Schwules Museum has always fostered and thrived on frank communication with its visitors and the communities it represents. We want to continue that tradition this year with even more transparency, so as to collectively develop resilient concepts for queer/feminist cooperation, and anchor them for the long-term in the Museum’s practice."[6]

The year began with a bang. In our January newsletter I addressed the critique of the Schwules Museum program, which still reflects the “visual and conceptual hegemony of (white, cis) gay masculinity more than focusing on marginalized and discriminated positions. As this estimation is not shared by everyone within the Museum itself, there are many reasons to open up a critical debate on hostility against lesbians, women* and womanhood within the queer community.”

Of course a fraught debate escalated rapidly within social media as well as in the real world. In Berlin's queer magazine "Siegessäule" for example it was criticized that Schwules Museum “is abandoning its fundaments” and setting up an “olympics of discrimination,” weakening the community in the presence of the enemy from the right-wing populist gang, which has just entered the German Parliament.[7] Voicing mechanisms of marginalization and discrimination within "the family" seems to be inviting the skeletons out of the closet. Expressing this is obviously just as taboo as it is in any other family. We don't know how this intense experiment of self-critique will go and where we will stand at the end of the year. We will see. We hope during the course of the year that the recognition that misogyny and sexism damage not only women* but men* as well, especially gay men, will spread.


Birgit Bosold is member of the Board of Directors at Schwules Museum, Berlin’s Gay Museum. In this role, which she has held since 2006, she is responsible for the organization’s finances and plays an important part in changing the Museum’s strategic focus. She curated exhibitions such as On the other Hand (2011), a show featuring artistic positions on the FIFA Women’s World Cup. She also conceptualized exhibitions outlining the work of various photographers: Petra Gall, whose extensive feminist archive she succeeded in acquiring for Schwules Museum (2012), (with Wolfgang Theis) Zanele Muholi, as part of a cooperation agreement with Amnesty International (2014), and (with Claudia Reiche) Krista Beinstein, an icon of sex-positive feminism (2016). Recently, she initiated and supervised the exhibition Odarodle - An imaginary their_story of naturepeoples, 1535-2017 (curated by Ashkan Sepahvand, 2017) as well as (with Anna Hájková) the international conference Sexuality, Holocaust, Stigma: Taking Stock (2017). Her current project, together with Vera Hofmann, is the co-curation of the program Year of the women*. Bosold was project leader and co-curator of the major exhibition Homosexuality_ies initiated by Schwules Museum in collaboration with Deutsches Historisches Museum in 2015, taken over by The LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in 2016. In 2016, she was awarded the Kompassnadel for her engagement by Schwules Netzwerk NRW, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia’s self-help network for gay people.

Bosold actually comes from the field of private banking; after completing her studies and receiving a doctorate in literature she spent many years with various renowned banks and currently works as a freelance consultant in the field of portfolio management, advising companies, foundations and private individuals. She is also a writer and lecturer in her specialist field.

Vera Hofmann (born 1979 in Gießen) is a Berlin based artist and member of the Board of Directors of Schwules Museum. She holds degrees in Business Administration (BA, BA Mannheim), Photography (BA, Lette Verein Berlin) and Fine Arts (MA, Sandberg Institute/ Gerrit Rietveld Academy). Her work has been awarded and displayed internationally for example at De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam, Benaki Museum, Athens, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and Pori Art Museum, Finland. She conceived and works in the artist collective BENTEN CLAY. Until 2006 she worked in established creative advertisement agencies consulting well-known corporations such as DAX-Companies and cultural institutions. Her projects are often particularly designed to specific temporalities and locations facing complex sociopolitical issues like the financial crises, atomic waste, ecological destruction, cancer, loss as well as healing and empowerment. As a core topic her works address how to deal with crises, whether political or personal. In her practice, Hofmann outlines artistic and curatorial formats and settings to reclaim intra- as well as interpersonal connections.


[i] Fabian Bocart, Marina Gertsberg, and Rachel Pownall, “Glass Ceilings in the Art Market,” November 30 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3079017. Accessed 26.01.2018.

[ii] Linda Nochlin. 1988. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Accessed 27.01.2018. http:// deyoung.famsf.org/fles/whynogreatwomenartists_4.pdf.

[iii] Bocart, Gertsberg, and Pownall.

[iv] Schwules Museum. 2015. “Homosexuality_ies.” Accessed 26.01.2018. https://www.schwulesmuseum.de/ausstellung/homosexualitaet_en/?lang=en.

[v] Dean Spade et. al. 2016. “Queer Dreams and Nonproft Blues: Understanding the Nonproft Industrial Complex.” Accessed 26.01.2018. http://www.deanspade.net/2016/02/28/queer-dreams-and-nonproft-blues/.

[vi] Schwules Museum. 2018. “YEAR OF THE WOMEN*.” Accessed 26.01.2018. http://www.schwulesmuseum.de/en/news/view/year-of-the-women-the-whole-caboodle-2018/.

[vii] Till Amelung. 2018. “Zu weiss zu männlich zu schwul.” Siegessäule. Accessed 26.01.2018. https://www.siegessaeule.de/no_cache/newscomments/article/3715-zu-weiss-zu-maennlich-zu-schwul-wie-das-schwule-museum-sein-fundament-entsorgt.html.

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