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The Battle of Chicago : Art: Feminist artist Judy Chicago fires back at critics who call her 'Dinner Party' obscene and withdraws her gift of it to a university.

October 12, 1990|RICHARD MAHLER

SANTA FE, N.M. — One morning last July in the nation's capital, artist Judy Chicago stood in her work-out leotards outside a YMCA and scanned the headlines of a sidewalk newsstand.

"There, on the front page of the Washington Times, was a color picture of me and 'The Dinner Party,' " said Chicago, referring to her controversial mixed-media tribute to prominent women of history. "I looked at it and went, 'Huh?' I didn't have a quarter with me so I couldn't even buy a copy."

Later, after reading the accompanying article, Chicago's bafflement turned to outrage.

The story inaccurately reported that the University of the District of Columbia would soon spend $1.6 million to acquire and exhibit "The Dinner Party," which includes 39 hand-painted ceramic place settings with elaborate sculpted forms that some have compared to female sex organs. The article also repeated anonymous allegations that the work was obscene.

Two days later, on Chicago's 51st birthday, the paper ran a correction pointing out that she had agreed to donate the piece and that the great bulk of the funds would go to renovating the college's library.

After that initial disclosure, however, Chicago's artwork became a focal point in this year's raging national debate over government funding of the arts, and on Oct. 2 in a surprise announcement, the angry artist withdrew her gift of "The Dinner Party" to the university.

Last week in the quiet backyard of her adobe home here, Chicago's voice still shook with rage as she reflected on her two-month battle against unidentified "right-wingers" who, she claims, orchestrated a sophisticated and powerful "misinformation campaign" against "The Dinner Party" and the feminist viewpoint it represents.

"Their goal was to suppress 'The Dinner Party' and it looks like they have," said Chicago, who on Sunday is to receive one of the downtown Los Angeles Women's Building's annual VESTA awards for promoting and supporting the arts.

"("The Dinner Party") is not art, it's pornography," said Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), during an 87-minute July 26 House debate on the UDC proposal. Waving a copy of the July 18 Washington Times article, Dornan chastised the National Endowment for the Arts for contributing $39,500 to the $250,000 "Dinner Party" project in the late 1970s.

Later, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) denounced the piece as "weird sexual art" and Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) sponsored a measure that sought to punish the university by withholding $1.6 million from an appropriations bill, even though the renovation funding had been allocated to the university in a separate District of Columbia capital-spending bond issue.

"Not one penny of federal money would have been involved (in 'The Dinner Party' project)," said a member of the university's board of trustees, who asked not to be named. Other university sources estimated expenses associated with installing the artwork would have been "about $250,000 in non-federal funds."

In a statement, Board of Trustees Chairwoman Nira Hardon Long said "The Dinner Party" gift was debated and approved in two public meetings earlier this year and before the House floor debate "would have had no negative impact on UDC's budget or academic program."

Chicago blasts conservative politicians, "religious fanatics" and "the mainstream media" for repeating unsubstantiated rumors, inaccuracies and misinformation about her donation. A trustee confirmed, for example, that it was the school's idea, not Chicago's, to permanently display the gift in a revitalized multicultural art center in which "The Dinner Party" would be only one element.

Chicago insists that her decision to withdraw the work was a matter of principle. Student protesters occupying two campus buildings for nine days last month asked that the $1.6 million earmarked for library renovation be spent on activities more directly related to their day-to-day education, citing deterioration of facilities and a high turnover rate among faculty.

"Somebody faxed us the demands of the students," said Chicago, who has converted the front of her Santa Fe home into offices for Through the Flower, the nonprofit organization that oversees "The Dinner Party" and the artist's subsequent work. "I realized that (the UDC students) had the right to make the kinds of demands they were on their institution, and I felt that we had no choice but to withdraw the gift . . . there was no point in trying to foist it on them."

"The Dinner Party" remains in storage in Northern California, where it was created by Chicago and dozens of assistants from 1974-79. The assemblage no longer tours because of its fragile condition, and the artist has been seeking a permanent installation for the past year.

Rather than worry about "The Dinner Party's" final resting place, Chicago said she is trying to heal the wounds inflicted on her and her reputation as a result of "confused and distorted reporting" about the UDC matter.

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