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Feminist artist Judy Chicago decries 'paltry' advancements for women artists

Pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, creator of "The Dinner Party", calls for far greater opportunities for women artists. She spoke at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts Mar. 2
Pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, creator of "The Dinner Party", calls for far greater opportunities for women artists. She spoke at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts Mar. 2
Artist Judy Chicago. Photo by Jake Erlich, National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), Washington, D.C.

Pioneering artist Judy Chicago, creator of "The Dinner Party", urged far greater opportunities for women artists March 2 at her 75th birthday party and exhibit "Judy Chicago: Circa '75" at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts.

What an apt start for Women's History Month.

The famed artist, a key founder of the Feminist Art Movement in the 1970s, rued the "paltry amount of women artists exhibited in museums, given solo exhibitions, and included in major collections" four decades later.

"In 1970, 1.5 percent of art magazine stories were about women artists. Now, astoundingly, it's up to 2.7 percent!" Chicago told the audience. "The amount of women artists in major museum collections was 3 percent then, and now it's 5 percent."

Chicago acknowledged that there "has been some change. There are many more women showing art, many more women in power (*more about that in a moment), but we have to look closely at the statistics."

The feminist artist added, "As long as the Museum of Modern Art is just men's art, we need our own museums -- we need hundreds of our own institutions...until such time as men are willing to give us 50 percent of the space."

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the world's only museum dedicated solely to art by women. Only three others focus on women: The Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where "The Dinner Party" is a permanent installation; The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe; and The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute.

Chicago urged, "devise changes in institutions, and make end-runs around them" (**more about that later, too).

The latest of Chicago's 14 books, "Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education" (Monacelli Press, March 18), is a searing indictment.

These institutions are "inherently biased against women, in curriculum, in art history...," the author-artist-teacher said. "Women students could file a class action suit for fraud."

Chicago appeared at NMWA to celebrate that book's publication as well as the publication of "The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism" (University of Georgia Press) by art historian and author Jane Gerhard.

The renowned work "is history. It's a touchstone of women of women in the 1970s, and feminism in the 1970s," Gerhard said.

When she first saw it, "I was struck by the force of gathering so many women and their history in that one location...It's got such a punch. It made me cry. My son ran off in fear."

Gerhard and Chicago discussed their books and these issues with NMWA director Susan Fisher Sterling.

*Sterling was featured in that day's (March 2) huge "Washington Post" story "The Directors: For these women, museums are no longer built with glass ceilings" about 13 women heading cultural institutions (including four art museums) in this area. But the typical "first female" story focused on work-life balance!

Chicago pointed out that gender alone wasn't the issue, but what the directors did to improve the situation of women artists in the respective museums.

An early, avid champion of the NMWA, Chicago was at the museum to celebrate its current tribute exhibit "Judy Chicago: Circa '75". While bemoaning "No museum in the world would mount a major retrospective of my work -- Instead of that, there's a **national retrospective."

Other exhibits honoring her include:

  • Penn State University began its year-long celebrations in January with "Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades" at its Palmer Museum of Art. Chicago will be the keynote speaker April 5 at a free symposium. Penn State houses the Judy Chicago Art Education Collection, one of the most important private collections of archival materials on feminist art education.

Also, Chicago will talk about her life and lengthy artistic career on April 24 at 6:30 P.M. at The Jewish Museum on New York's Fifth Avenue. Her work "Rainbow Pickett" was featured in The Jewish Museum's 1966 "Primary Structures" exhibition. Her lecture is a highlight of the museum's programs related to its current exhibition, "Other Primary Structures".

Chicago is, of course, best-known for her monumental multimedia "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979). A symbolic history of 39 key women in Western civilization, and 999 names of other important women, the work was enormously controversial for years. The epitome of feminist art ("seminal" has no female equivalent, certainly not "hysterical"), now it's regarded as a milestone of 20th century art.

"The Dinner Party" is represented in NMWA's exhibit of 13 Chicago paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works by her test plate for Virginia Woolf.

Chicago said her greatest challenge in preparing "The Dinner Party" was "how to extract the truth about the women through the shroud of history -- the patriarchal veil -- the women were written about mostly through their husbands or sons."

She added that in the "hubris of youth, I thought my paintbrush would break through the continued erasure of women in history -- but we're still in that. It's the failure of institutions."

Chicago said of "The Dinner Party", "It's all old news. I'm done. I achieved my goal. It's permanently housed. Now it's been seen by about two million people.

"I'm glad that 'The Dinner Party' brought so much attention. But for a long time, it blocked out much of my other work...," said the extraordinary artist.

"Go and be well. I carried you, was responsible for you, but now I'll spend the rest of my life on new works, new books -- There's more to be done; I'm still here; and I want to do it," said the multi-talented firebrand.

So, happy, healthy birthday -- and many more.

For more info: "Judy Chicago: Circa '75", National Museum of Women in the Arts,, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-783-5000 or 800-222-7270. Exhibit on view through Apr. 13. Artist Conversation: Judy Chicago and Jane Gerhard in Dialogue 75th birthday celebration was March 2.

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