Frontlines

A cook’s tour of women’s art and history

Mark Budgen July 9 1979
Frontlines

A cook’s tour of women’s art and history

Mark Budgen July 9 1979

A cook’s tour of women’s art and history

Frontlines

Feminist artist and author Judy Chicago is furious. After she and 400 others spent five years and $250,000 creating The Dinner Party, a ceremonial table setting celebrating the art and history of women through the ages, only one art museum in the United States has decided to exhibit it. The museums say the piece is too large—it needs at least 3,600 square feet of unencumbered space to be shown properly—and too expensive to transport. Yet, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Dinner Party has been drawing record crowds. People have been lining up for two hours to view it and Chicago’s book on the work has sold 25,000 copies in just two months.

Women all over the world, including one group in Ottawa, celebrated the opening by having dinner parties on International Women’s Day, and letters continue to pour into Chicago's Los Angeles office from women asking when they will be able to become “paying guests” in their cities. So far they’re out of luck unless they live in San Francisco.

But Chicago is not buying the space and expense arguments—quite adamantly, she maintains that museums are biased against women's art. “The art establishment spends hundreds of thousands of dollars getting second-rate exhibitions of Impressionists and Renaissance art. This is a test of how deep a prejudice there is against women's art in art museums. People want to see it, the museums can make money showing it, but they won’t respond to community demands."

The Dinner Party, as Chicago succinctly puts it, is “a reinterpretation of the Last Supper by those who did the cooking. ’ ’ The "table” itself is in the form of an equilateral triangle with 39 table settings, each for a famous woman from primeval, mythological times to the realities of the present day.

The table is on a tiled base on which are written 999 names of other renowned women, although one is notable by her absence—Oueen Victoria, who was opposed to universal suffrage. Each setting includes a plate and a place mat, with symbolic and figurative designs suited to each “guest’s” life and times.

"It is very moving,” says Stephen Prokopoff at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “If we find the money and space, we'll show it without any doubt.” But if there are no other takers (the National Gallery in Ottawa is interested), Chicago is going to set up her own network of galleries with each community raising the money needed to show it and finding an exhibition space. Already a Vancouver group of women is trying to raise the money to exhibit it next summer.

However, says Chicago, the fight is taking its toll. "I’m beginning to feel my creative career grinding to a halt because of the energies I’ve had to expend in begging museums to take it.” If it's any consolation, Judy Chicago can surely count on support from the ghosts of the women she has honored Mark Budgen