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Summer 2007

Survey: Making Time for Art
Needlepoint by Stephen Beal
Fiber Art Studios

Judy Chicago at The Dinner Party’s Opening

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Judy Chicago at The Dinner Party's Opening

In March, the artist commented about feminist art, art as a career, and credit for the artisans who helped create the cloth runners of the installation.

The new gallery for The Dinner Party (© Judy Chicago, 1974–1979; ceramic, porcelain, textile; 3' x 48' x 42'). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum (gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center Foundation). Photo courtesy of Polshek Partnership Architects.

The iconic installation The Dinner Party, created in 1974–1979, is now the centerpiece of the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. In our Summer 2007 issue, Carol K. Russell writes about the new home for the installation, which features place settings for thirty-nine women of history. (Each place setting includes a cloth runner that incorporates handworked names and designs or symbols.) Here we share highlights of a dialogue involving artist Judy Chicago, held on March 24, 2007, as part of the opening-weekend celebration.

Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, opened the dialogue, speaking of the “great future” of the new center. He then introduced Elizabeth Sackler—“trustee of the museum, public historian, great activist in terms of Native American cultures, the founder of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, a great feminist, a great friend”—and “the one, the only, the great Judy Chicago.” He concluded, “These are two women of great vision and great commitment.”

Much of the discussion among the three centered on the impact and relevance of feminist art and the challenges it has posed to the mainstream art world. Chicago noted that she is very interested in “what was going to happen when the mainstream art world’s perception and position that feminist art was a passing phenomenon in the 1970s came up against the reality that the feminist art movement was an international phenomenon, as documented by Wack!, and has now spread globally, as documented by Global Feminisms.” (Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution is an exhibition on view through July 16, 2007, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Global Feminisms is a Sackler Center exhibition of work by eighty artists on view through July 1, 2007.) Chicago continued, “[Curator] Connie Butler’s positioning of Wack! not as an effort to define feminist art, but rather as an exhibition that documents the impact feminism had on the visual arts, is going to be easier for the art world to swallow than the idea of feminist art,” she said. She said she is interested to see whether there’s going to be resistance now to the idea of feminist art as a movement; “part of that is because it challenges so dramatically the mainstream narrative, and part of it because feminist art is content-based, not stylistically driven, which is how all art movements have been.”

What is feminist art? Chicago explained, “Feminism is a philosophy, and feminist art manifests that philosophical point of view, but feminism is an embracing, big philosophy that has its roots back several hundred years to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [1792]. Basically feminism—or feminisms, as they have developed and expanded—looks at the world first through the lens of gender and with the goal of disrupting the hierarchical structure on the planet that privileges one experience over another, one human being over another, one species over another, in order to bring about greater equity and justice on the planet. So if you start with the grounding in feminism—or feminisms, because they manifest in many different ways—and then you filter that through the various cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual orientations—in other words, all the multiplicity of individualities as people experience the world—then you get a multiplicity of feminist arts.”

There was some discussion of audience and the art market. In response to Lehman’s question about what Chicago was noticing about young artists, Chicago replied, “The one thing that has not really translated from the ’70s into contemporary art is the idea of broadening the audience for art by making the language of art more accessible. We now have many, many more artists still trying to compete for the same small audience. Another way of disrupting the art system is to insist that we rethink the relationship between art and audience. We ask for whom this art is.” Sackler raised the issue of the art market and how it affects women artists. Chicago commented, “Feminist art in its purist form is directly oppositional to the market because it’s the opposite of making art for the market.”

Later, there was a question from the audience from a student at Moore College of Art & Design: “I was listening to Judy talking before about how feminist art is against capitalism and it shouldn’t be market driven, and when it is it becomes superficial. Now I am asking as an artist how am I supposed to make a living—the ‘career question.’” Chicago replied: “You know, I come from a different time. I come from a time there wasn’t the idea that you could make a lot of money in the arts. Where that was not the purpose of art; the purpose of art was to make a contribution to art history, to make a contribution to understanding, to give meaning to life through art. And I think that every young artist…I think that right now it is very, very difficult for a young artist to figure out how to build and sustain a career, because the market grabs you up, uses you up, and spits you out. So if you want to do that, go ahead. And if you don’t want to do it, then you will be faced, just like every artist before you, with trying to figure out how to make your art with integrity and support yourself. You know, I lived without anything for most of my life. I didn’t have a mortgage until I was fifty. Do I regret it? No. Money’s not everything. And if you understand that, then you are not going to be a victim of the market.”

Another question came from Jan Marie DuBois, one of the 450 people who worked on The Dinner Party. (In creating the cloth runners, Chicago worked with fiber artisans who assisted with the quilting, weaving, embroidery, etc.) DuBois noted that in previous showings of The Dinner Party, a panel on the wall acknowledged the people who worked on it, but that “there is no information whatsoever of our names . . . or what we did on the walls of this museum.” She added, “The reason I think that that is an issue isn’t for our egos—it’s that the history of The Dinner Party tells the story of women taking a rape. And here we are, we have disappeared visually from the work. I didn’t do the work—it was you, you created it all, we all supported you, but what made it dynamic was that in ’79 . . . people responded to the fact that this was a huge collaborative process.” Chicago noted that she does not own The Dinner Party, so the question should not be directed to her. Museum director Lehman replied that the artisans are being acknowledged on the Sackler Center’s website. “My answer is that when you see the evolution of our website, you will see all the names of the people, as the information has come to us. . . . I understand my answer may not satisfy you. But that’s how we are going to be able to recognize all the people. You may recall when we did the installation on a temporary basis [in 2002–03], we did have space that we set aside to do that, and our feeling was that doing this on the website would allow it to have an even broader audience.”

Chicago then said, “If you’re going to argue for acknowledgement of the people that worked on The Dinner Party from 1975 to 1979, then I believe you must also argue for the acknowledgement of all the people from 1979 to 2002 who worked to care for, preserve, support, and make sure The Dinner Party was taken care of until such time it could be permanently housed. When I did the new Dinner Party book, on the front endpapers, everyone who worked on the piece is acknowledged. And on the back endpapers, everybody who worked since 1979 until 2002 is acknowledged. And you know what, Jan Marie, there are more names in the back of the book than the front of the book. Making the art was the fun part, but the easy part. You know what the really hard part was? It was taking care of it and making it count. And I would personally feel a lot more sympathetic to the Dinner Party workers when they argue as much for all those other people as for themselves, because most of the Dinner Party workers abandoned The Dinner Party in 1979.”

Two books have been released in conjunction with the opening of The Dinner Party’s permanent home: The book Chicago refers to above is The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation (published by Merrell, 308 pages, $49.95). The second is Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist by Gail Levin (published by Harmony, 496 pages, $29.95). Both books are available on Chicago’s website and the Brooklyn Museum’s website.



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