Reviews

Documenting and Preserving a Feminist Artist’s Legacy: A Glimpse Inside The Dinner Party Studio

For much of her career, artist, author and educator Judy Chicago has been very vocal about the ways in which women’s achievements and contributions have repeatedly been written out and erased from the historical and cultural record. When Chicago embarked on the creation of her iconic large-scale multimedia installation artwork, The Dinner Party (1974-1979), she did so with the intention of breaking and interrupting that cycle. The Dinner Party was created to honor, pay tribute to, and acknowledge women from Western history that had made a significant contribution to society, had improved conditions for other women, and had served as role models for an egalitarian society. Chicago envisioned that The Dinner Party would be the foundation by which future generations of women could begin to know what women before them thought, taught, and created.

Some thirty years since The Dinner Party, Chicago believes we are still witnessing the story that work tells. She is keenly aware that the pattern of erasure she once thought was situated in the past is still very much a problem. She explains that to know the history of women is to also know the history of what has, and has not, become of their work. To know the history of women artists is to be aware of the ways in which they have, or have not been, valued and recognized in the art world. Chicago thinks that most major art institutions do not care for and preserve work created by women artists in the same way they care for and preserve work created by male artists. For Chicago, the reality is, “what happened to so many women represented in The Dinner Party could also happen to me.”

In August, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) announced the creation of the Judy Chicago Visual Archive at their Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC). This archive documents Chicago’s career from the 1960s to the present, and includes materials such as photographs, slides, negatives, printed ephemera, as well as exhibitions of drawings, paintings, sculpture and installations, including The Dinner Party.

The current exhibition, Inside “The Dinner Party” Studio, curated by the Director of the LRC, Sarah Osborne Bender, serves as a companion to the archive and provides a glimpse into the types of documentation included therein.

Documentation panels. Photo for East City Art by Rachelle L. Williams.

Featured in the exhibition are displays of documentation panels. These panels contain a collage of photographs and text that provide insight into the process of creating The Dinner Party. Much of the text included on the documentation panels comes from volunteers who described their experiences working on such a project, sharing what they learned, the challenges they faced, and how they resolved problems. Photographs show individual and group shots of volunteers engaged in studio work such as designing and painting the dinner plates for The Dinner Party’s thirty-nine place settings, or creating the tiles for the Heritage Floor, which sits beneath The Dinner Party and contains the names of 999 women from history that correlate to each of those place settings.

The documentation panels also include images of the studio itself, giving the viewer a sense of how the space was organized and of how individuals within that space worked. For example, one of the panels includes a photograph of a woman who appears to be writing or editing entries for the research cards used to document the lives and achievements of the women to be included in The Dinner Party. On the table is a large sign that reads, “Don’t Talk to Me–I’m Working and If I Stop Chicago Will Kill Me!!!” One of the things Chicago recalls about The Dinner Party studio experience is that it taught women how to work. In the studio, personal conversations were frowned upon and strongly discouraged. Chicago wanted to create an environment where women could become empowered by the work they were doing and she believed this could only be done if they stayed focused on the tasks at hand.

Close-up of photograph included on Documentation Panel. Photo for East City Art by Rachelle L. Williams.

Not only do the documentation panels tell us something about the studio experience in creating The Dinner Party, they also do the work of writing into history the names, faces, and thoughts of the approximately 400 volunteers, women and men, who contributed to its making. Most of the time, volunteers and apprentices who have assisted with an artwork are relegated to a footnote, if they are acknowledged at all. Chicago, mindful of the history of erasure, made certain to not only meticulously document her self in the creation of The Dinner Party, but to document those who helped her make this work possible.

Other materials on display Inside “The Dinner Party” Studio include negatives and contact sheets from approximately 500 rolls of film taken between 1976 and 1979. Many of these images were published in The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1979) and Embroidering Our Heritage (1980), companion books to The Dinner Party. Both are accessible on a table in the exhibit for viewers to browse. Images of volunteers engaged in needlework, china painting, or ceramics illustrate the various mediums used to create The Dinner Party and validate their importance and significance as art forms, disrupting traditional art narratives about these mediums belonging to the realm of “low art.”

Photo for East City Art by Rachelle L. Williams.

In this exhibit, you will also find printed ephemera such as brochures inviting volunteers to offer their expertise in ceramics, woodwork, graphic design, and historical research to the project. There is a “Dinner Party Workers” form, which provides information about volunteers’ interests, skills, and professional and educational background, as well as information about how they saw themselves in relation to the project and what they hoped to gain from working on it. A sketchbook provides insight into Chicago’s vision for how she wanted The Dinner Party to be displayed upon completion.

Photo for East City Art by Rachelle L. Williams.

One of the best ways to understand what happened inside The Dinner Party studio is to watch Johanna Demetraka’s documentary film, Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1980). The film, about 75-minutes long, is invaluable in capturing the dynamics of the studio experience. The conversations, discussions, and interactions between Chicago and the volunteers who worked with her, and between the women and men who worked in the studio, cannot be completely understood through photography or printed text alone. Weekly Thursday night potlucks were when many of these exchanges took place. Chicago instituted these weekly gatherings to give everyone an opportunity to address any problems that may have come up while working in the studio, to brainstorm about how to resolve those problems, to address working conditions in the studio, or to discuss some of the feminist principles guiding Chicago in doing this work. Often, these conversations were heated and intense. Additionally, you are privy to interesting exchanges between men and women volunteers about what is “fair and right” regarding the distribution of work in the studio. And, male volunteers are questioned about how they plan to implement what they have learned in the studio when they “go back out into the real world.”

Inside “The Dinner Party” Studio is as much about providing an introduction to the Chicago archives at the NMWA Library and Research Center as it is about the process and importance of documenting, archiving, and preserving one’s work. It also speaks to the ways in which Chicago thought about providing multiple access points for audiences to learn about The Dinner Party.  These materials allow for “deep research into the visual record of Chicago’s long creative career as a game-changing feminist artist…and bring to light the fullness of her career,” says Bender.

According to NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling, “Collaborating with Judy Chicago to bring her visual archive to NMWA is one of the most important steps we have taken in developing our archival program for the future. Not only will her substantial body of work be safeguarded for future generations, but we believe that Chicago’s gift will encourage other artists to entrust their archives to NMWA—the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to preserving women’s creative contributions.”


Inside The Dinner Party Studio, located in the fourth floor Dix Gallery and open during regular museum hours, runs through January 5, 2018.  The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC 20005. Visit their website at www.nmwa.org for hours and other information.

Rachelle L. Williams
Authored by: Rachelle L. Williams

Rachelle L. Williams is an African American and Women’s studies scholar whose work focuses on women’s art and culture. She has a BA in history from Talladega College and a MA in women’s studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Rachelle is also an educator who teaches arts and humanities courses to adult learners and college students. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Rachelle has been living in the Washington, DC area for almost 20 years, 8 of which have been as a resident in the Trinidad neighborhood.