Projects: The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party is a monumental work of art that employs numerous media, including ceramics, china-painting, and an array of needle and fiber techniques, to honor the history of women in Western civilization.

The Dinner Party installation view

The Dinner Party, Mixed media 48' x 48' x 3', Collection of Brooklyn Museum

  • A milestone, multi-media installation created by Judy Chicago and hundreds of volunteers between 1974 and 1979.
  • A symbolic history of women in Western civilization which has toured around the world to fifteen sites, six countries and a viewing audience of over one million people.
  • In March 2007 this icon of twentieth-century art was permanently housed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY.

About The Dinner Party

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party elevates female achievement in Western history to a heroic scale traditionally reserved for men. The Dinner Party is a massive ceremonial banquet in art, laid on a triangular table measuring 48 feet on each side. Combining the glory of sacramental tradition with the intimate detail of a carefully orchestrated social gathering, the artist represents 39 "guests of honor" by individually symbolic, larger-than-life-size china-painted porcelain plates rising from intricate textiles draped completely over the tabletops. Each plate features an image based on the butterfly, symbolic of a vaginal central core. The runners name the 39 women and contain images drawn from each one's story, executed in the needlework of the time in which each woman lived.

The Dinner Party entryway banners

The Dinner Party Entryway Banners, installation view at UCLA

The Dinner Party UCLA banner installation view

The Dinner Party Heritage Panels, installation view at UCLA

Vivid imagery on the runner backs is visible only across the span of a gleaming porcelain floor that undulates with the gilded names of 999 women who prefigured and supported the towering figures on the table. The Dinner Party is introduced by six Aubusson tapestry banners which convey fragments from a poem by Judy Chicago, offering the dream of a more just world. The variety of details worked into the art would be overwhelming but for the powerful simplicity of the triangular form, holding a host of particulars in its equilateral embrace.

The Beginning of The Dinner Party

The multiplicity of lives alluded to in The Dinner Party would be impossible to take in except for one overarching fact communicated throughout the art: all these remarkable human beings were female. In the 21st century, for the Western world, the existence of women of achievement is not big news. But in 1979 (when The Dinner Party premiered), it was paradigm-shattering.

Janson and Janson composite large cover

Announcement that Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party appear in Janson & Janson: A Basic History of Western Art, 7th Edition (2006)

When Judy Chicago began thinking about The Dinner Party in the late 1960s, there were no women's studies programs, no women in history courses, no seminaries teaching about the female principle in religion, and scarcely any women leading churches. There were no exhibitions, books, or courses surveying women in art. Not one woman appeared in the standard art history college textbook by H.W. Janson. There was no biography in English of Frida Kahlo; the music of Hildegarde of Bingen had not been heard for centuries.

It was more than news—it was a major challenge to academic and artistic tradition that the subject matter of women's achievements was adequate for a monumental work of art. Developing this subject matter, expressing it traditionally—i.e., on a heroic scale—in media that were considered beneath the standard of fine art, working openly with scores of studio participants and acknowledging their role in the production of art—in all these ways Judy Chicago defied tradition, and challenged the usual boundaries of the contemporary art world.

Exhibition Tour

In 1979 the work was premiered to enormous public enthusiasm by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose director, Henry Hopkins, had followed its progress and supported it with grant applications in the Museum's name for years. But the next planned stops on its exhibition tour were quickly scuttled. It was then that Through the Flower stepped in to bring The Dinner Party to the many viewers who were clamoring to see it even in the face of art world resistance and hostility, which grew out of the convention-shattering nature of The Dinner Party.

Long lines waiting to see The Dinner Party

Long lines of people waiting to view The Dinner Party at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1979

Chicago's uncommon range of abilities and her emphasis on education turned the tide. Knowing that women's achievements—especially in the arts—had disappeared from history, Chicago planned two volumes and a film documenting The Dinner Party, so that it would not be easily erased. She had already published an autobiography, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist (1975) in which she detailed her effort to construct a historical context for her life as a woman artist. Her effort came to fruition in The Dinner Party as volunteers scoured libraries for women in history, while others gave countless hours alongside Chicago in the studio where ceramics and textiles were made. Neither Chicago nor her colleagues imagined that her book would launch The Dinner Party when the art world could not, but that's what happened. Hundreds of thousands of visitors were moved by it. It stirred strong passions, evoked arguments among highly trained professionals, inspired parodies and imitations, even gave rise to a wave of elementary-school projects where children honored the woman of their choice by decorating a paper plate.

The Dinner Party core group

The Dinner Party core group, March 14, 1979, San Francisco Museum of Art

Needlework loft

The Needlework Loft at The Dinner Party Studio

The Dinner Party memorabilia

The Dinner Party Memorabilia

As The Dinner Party traveled, the culture it was part of slowly shifted. Women's studies joined existing specialties on college campuses. Women's rights were slowly won in the workplace, the courtroom and the schoolyard. Some churches yielded to women's demands for leadership roles. And in the art world, trends that had first emerged in California Feminist art began to sweep the country among young artists both male and female. Materials ranging from fabric toys to paper clips became part of contemporary artmaking. Personal subject matter made a comeback. Installation art became a standard, and historical troves were mined to yield narrative art and post-modern commentary on history. The world, even the art world, began to catch up to the point from which Judy Chicago had begun The Dinner Party.

Finding a Home

From the beginning, Chicago had set a goal of permanently housing The Dinner Party because she recognized that without permanent housing, The Dinner Party—like so much of women’s cultural production—could be lost. While the project of permanently housing The Dinner Party was stalled perpetually by the high cost of creating an ongoing institutional framework for it, the growing audience for the work found it hard to believe that housing the art was not just a matter of saying "Yes." For Chicago, the situation was deeply frustrating. Over and over, exhibitors profited from showing the piece. On campuses, fields of study sprang up that lent context to the factual detail embodied in the art. To students, The Dinner Party was part of art history. But, for a long time, permanent housing was elusive despite many efforts around the country.

The Dinner Party from above

The Dinner Party, installation view from above, Collection of Brooklyn Museum

Sappho overview

The Dinner Party, installation view, Wing 1, Collection of Brooklyn Museum

At one point, Chicago offered the art as a gift to the University of the District of Columbia, where a bond issue had passed to renovate a library as a cultural center. Republican Congressmen responded with fury, threatening to cut the District's budget and end the National Endowment for the Arts, which had supported the artmaking. Despite the loosening of gender restraints on women, the loudest defenders of cultural tradition were "old white men"; their supporters were numerous, however, and not all old, white, or male, as conservative Christians began to dominate the political arena. And as gender studies, women's studies, African American studies and other new specialties competed for students, funding, and intellectual privilege, it became less clear where The Dinner Party fit in academia.

Then The Dinner Party’s future was secured by Dr. Elizabeth A. Sackler. Younger than Chicago, Sackler's experience of art from many cultures was almost unique. Her father, Arthur M. Sackler, acquired countless artifacts from world cultures, donating them to museums along with buildings to house them. Sackler, who earned her Ph.D. in social history, had worked with museums on exhibitions and funded the repatriation of Native American artifacts. She also collected works by Judy Chicago and got to know her. Over time Sackler came to a decision: she would acquire the work and gift it to the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, where she is a Trustee.

The Trustees gave Sackler a standing ovation for her role in preserving the controversial Dinner Party and in 2012, Dr. Sackler was celebrated by the museum for her vision in establishing the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art — which, with The Dinner Party, accounts for a large percentage of the museum’s attendance.

The Dinner Party installation view

The Dinner Party installed in its permanent home at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum. Mixed media, 48' x 48' x 3', Collection of Brooklyn Museum