Judy Chicago's 'Dinner Party'

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s already been a landmark year for feminist art.

"WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on March 4 and will travel to P.S. 1 in New York and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington later in the year. The Museum of Modern Art hosted a sold-out, two-day symposium called "The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in Visual Arts" in January. The New York-based Women’s Media Center hosted two panels on feminist art last week, and the Feminist Art Project at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is thriving amid an unprecedented boom of media interest in the subject.

Meanwhile, in a signal that feminist artists excluded from major shows at art museums will have a refuge from tokenism, the Brooklyn Museum of Art will open the doors of its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on March 23.

The 8,300-square-foot space will open with a "Global Feminisms" exhibit featuring work by 87 contemporary feminist artists from around the world. There will also be a public computerized study area, a biographical gallery highlighting the work and lives of individual feminist artists and open space for public education programming.

The Sackler Center aims to foster appreciation and opportunities for a group of artists that is historically and financially marginalized.

But the center–along with the coast-to-coast events and media coverage–raise a few sensitive questions about the institutionalizing effects of a historically anti-institutional movement. Much of the 1970s feminist art movement was sparked by a collective desire to critique the traditional art world’s misogyny and traditional hierarchical structure. Can the radical spirit be maintained? Will a torch lit in the 1970s be accepted and carried on by today’s youngest female artists?

The Old Guard

Elizabeth Sackler

Funded by feminist artist and philanthropist Elizabeth A. Sackler, the Brooklyn center will permanently house Judy Chicago’s "The Dinner Party." Arguably the most well-known piece to come out of the feminist art movement, it is a 48-foot triangular table with place settings for 39 mythical and historical female figures that was created collaboratively by over a hundred women under Chicago’s direction from 1974 to 1979.

The purpose of the work, according to Chicago’s Web site, was "to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record."

Chicago, long the most visible face of the movement and the subject of a new biography by Gail Levin titled "Becoming Judy Chicago," is thrilled that feminist art will finally have a home in a major museum.

"Feminist art is the single most important art movement of the late 20th century," Chicago told Women’s eNews. "There are so many young feminist artists as a result of the movement in the 1970s, which introduced the possibility for women artists to work out of their own experiences for the first time."

The Feminist Future symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in January had an almost celebratory air as feminist art theorists, historians, curators and practitioners gathered.

Author and activist Lucy Lippard began her talk by saying, "This is quite a turnout for an ‘ism’ that from time to time has been relegated to a post buried in the past. It is also personally amusing for me that this takes place at the MoMA, not notorious for historically supporting feminism or women artists. I’ve picketed the museum on various occasions, so it is fun to be up here. Thank you very much for catching up."

Then she said, barely under her breath: "Better late than never." The crowd erupted in laughter.

The Next Generation

Miriam Katz, an artist-curator and a researcher for Artforum, has been on dozens of studio visits with young female artists all over the world. She says none of them identified herself as a feminist artist.

While Katz sees the potential for the Sackler Center to educate new generations of young women about feminist art and potentially provide them with space and money, she is puzzled by the approach.

"There is something ironic about the feminist artists of the 1970s being so excited about being institutionalized, given that the initial movement was so anti-establishment," she says.

Sackler understands Katz’s concerns.

"I want to change the nature of institutionalization with the center," says Sackler. "Make it as vibrant and active as any independent gallery would be. I want it to be hopping and happening."

Linda Nochlin, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and the co-curator of "Global Feminisms," has herself expressed qualms about the preservation and packaging of artists into a feminist canon, at least in the past.

"As a participant in the women’s art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the historicization of feminism," Nochlin wrote in the October 2003 edition of Artforum. "It is difficult to see lived experience transformed into historical text. Things that seemed open and dynamic are now pinned down and displayed like butterflies in a case."

Going Global

Nochlin’s reservations are precisely why "Global Feminisms," an exhibition which she co-curated with Maura O’Reilly, will focus not only on contemporary U.S. artists but on the work of female artists from other parts of the world. Seventy percent of the art, which is from 47 different countries, will be making its American debut.

Reilly, 38 years old and a self-identified member of feminism’s "third wave," looked for work for over three years "that wasn’t reductive or easily definable," culminating in a four-part exhibition organized along the themes of life cycles, identities, emotions and politics.

"As the curators, it was up to us to determine what constitutes feminist art, just as a curator can go in and determine was constitutes abstract art," she says. "We went in with very open eyes, trying not to superimpose any Western definitions of what feminism means on the work."

While identification as a feminist artist was not a pre-requisite for inclusion, Reilly hopes that "younger artists who experience the exhibition will find that they fit easily, perhaps surprisingly so, in the definition of feminist art that Linda Nochlin and I are putting forth."

Sackler hopes that the center will serve as the epicenter of an intergenerational conversation about not just feminist art, but feminism as a whole.

"My dearest hope," she says, "is that the center will be a hostess to all women, especially those who do not identify as feminists or feminist artists; women who feel we live in a post-feminist world. I don’t think there is a place where those disagreements and dialogues can take place."

Courtney E. Martin is a writer who previously taught "Women in the Arts" at Brooklyn College. "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," her first book, will be published by Simon and Schuster’s Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney’s work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com/.

For more information:

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art:

Judy Chicago:

The Feminist Art Project: