The Exhibition of The Dinner Party in Chicago

< back | next >

click on titles to jump to sections

– The Dinner Party exhibition in Chicago
– Events
– Local press and public response

– The Dinner Party exhibition in Chicago

The buzz in Chicago surrounding The Dinner Party exhibition’s arrival was in full force by the eve of its opening. After two years of preparation, The Dinner Party exhibition opened to the public on Sunday, September 13, 1981 with Judy Chicago in attendance and the fledging Hubbard Street Dance Company performing “Dancin’ in the Streets”.  Some Girls, a slide exhibition of Chicago women artists, opened across the street from the exhibition. People filled the banner-lined street. More than 120 volunteers were on hand to manage the crowd.

Over 70,000 people viewed the exhibit during its 21-week run in Chicago before its closing on February 7, 1982—many more than once—despite record below zero temperatures. Originally scheduled to close on January 3, 1982, the exhibition was extended for an additional five weeks due to the overwhelming public response.

Mayor Byrne touring

— The Dinner Party  
The Dinner Party is a monumental, multi-media installation created by Judy Chicago and hundreds of volunteers, 1974-1979, presenting a symbolic history of women in Western Civilization. When it traveled to Chicago in 1981, the first floor of the Franklin building provided an introduction for viewers before they boarded the elevator to the 13th floor where The Dinner Party table was presented. 

The Making of The Dinner Party Documentation Panels
Upon entering the exhibition in Chicago, the viewer was presented with a series of documentation panels that explained the process of making the artwork, showed photos of the studio environment where it was made, and introduced some of the more than 400 artists and volunteers who worked on making The Dinner Party exhibition. In addition, The Heritage Panels—large photo murals hand-colored by Judy Chicago—identified the 999 women on the Heritage Floor and provided an historical summary.

The International Quilting Bee
Through the Flower Corporation initiated The International Quilting Bee as a participatory activity that would extend the spirit of the Dinner Party exhibition beyond the boundaries of the show and further celebrate women’s accomplishments. People were invited to commemorate women of their choice by making small triangular quilts and donating them to become part of the exhibition. Chicago artists contributed enthusiastically to the growing quilt which traveled with the exhibit and collected pieces from women all over the world.

The Banners
After exiting the elevator on the 13th floor, viewers walked under banners hung high in the hallway to the darkened space that housed the glowingly lit banquet table on its shimmering floor. These banners introduced the viewer to the vision embodied in the piece. The sequence reads thus: “And She Gathered All Before Her”, “And She made for them”, “And lo! they saw a Vision”, “From this day forth, Like to like in All things”, “And then all that divided them merged”, “And then Everywhere was Eden Once again.”

The Dinner Party banquet table
The artist represents thirty-nine “guests of honor” by individual symbolic china-painted porcelain plates resting on intricate textiles runners around an open triangular table. Each guest is represented by an image based on the butterfly, symbolic of a vaginal central core. The textile runners name the 39 women and depict images drawn from their life and times, incorporating an aspect of textile technique typical of the period. The Dinner Party banquet table rests upon white porcelain tiles – The Heritage Floor – inscribed in gold lettering with the names of 999 women of achievement. Eight Chicago women are named on the Heritage Floor (see Timeline).  

Click here to view a complete description of The Dinner Party on Judy Chicago’s website.

Film Screenings
Screenings of the 72-minute color film Right out of History: The Making of the Dinner Party, by Johanna Demetrakas, were held in the space next door to the exhibition. Visitors were encouraged to watch the film before entering the exhibit which informed them about the project and helped staff manage the flow of viewers.

The Dinner Party Bookstore
In keeping with the spirit of The Dinner Party, the work of Chicago area artists and artisans could be seen and purchased at The Dinner Party Store, next door to the exhibition, at 716 South Dearborn. Through the duration of the exhibition, local potters, weavers, needle workers, quilters, jewelry makers and musicians, among others, were invited to demonstrate their talent and expertise at the store. The Jane Addams Bookstore, one of the city’s two feminist bookstores, shared the space to offer Judy Chicago’s books and a wide variety of women’s literature and contemporary women’s music.

— Events
Music of the Women Honored in The Dinner Party
The Roslyn Group for Arts and Letters was determined that women’s music and women musicians be included in the celebrations around The Dinner Party exhibition in Chicago. At the Opening Gala on September 11, 1981 chamber music group organized by Barbara Hauser introduced for the first time the String Quartet in E-minor by Dame Ethel Smyth. Subsequent recitals included music written by American composer Amy Beach and others. Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) was one of the leading composers of her time, as well as a journalist and an author. A militant leader for suffrage in England, she composed the “March of Women,” theme song of the suffrage movement.

From the Dining Table to The Dinner Party: China Painting show at Artemisia Gallery
In 1972, Judy Chicago discovered china painting and was introduced to a world comprised primarily of women who had preserved the glorious techniques of porcelain painting after the art had been eclipsed by imports and fashion. Artemisia Gallery, a women’s cooperative gallery, exhibited a sampling of work being done by traditional china painters as an homage to their accomplishments.

Some Girls
To highlight local artists, a continuous slide presentation of Chicago women artists sponsored by Artemisia Fund played throughout the run of The Dinner Party exhibition in a storefront space across the street.

— Local press and public response

Local media attention was abundant. Most coverage cited the long-time-coming and arrival of the exhibition in Chicago—and the grassroots effort that made it possible, against the odds. The Chicago Tribune’s Ann Marie Lipinski followed the undertaking from post-production to opening, while her colleague Alan G. Artner published commentary suggesting the art piece was insignificant, calling it “a feminist spectacle so dependent on ideology that writers with no artistic acquaintance could feel confident about entering the fray.” Artner was a no-show during the exhibit’s five-month run.  Laura Green wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times after she attended that “there was no vociferous criticism of the exhibit itself from the viewers, who were unanimous in their praise of the massive work.” (see NEWS ARTICLES below and at right)

Meanwhile the public kept coming, from all over the Midwest. Some wept. Some hated it. As Jean Hunt observed  “Everyone reacted.” One viewer expressed sentiments shared by many stating, “It evokes serious, heavy feelings. I felt pride and grief, anger and resentment but I also felt gratitude that I am one of the few who can see it.”

Aritcles can be found in The Dinner Party Project in Chicago archives at the University of Illinois.

Public May Never Again Feast on Paean to Women, by Ann Marie Lipinski, Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1979
Controversial Dinner Party Planned for Chicago Exhibit, by Ann Marie Lipinksi, Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1981
South Loop’s Dinner Party Should Whet Arty Appetites, by Lewis Lazare, Crain’s Chicago Business, July 6, 1981
Dinner Party Comes to Chicago, by Suzanne Berger, Sister Source: A Midwest Lesbian/Feminist Newspaper, August 1, 1981
The Women Who Came to Dinner, by Suzanne Weiss, Pioneer Press Newspapers, August 13, 1981
An Invitation to The Dinner Party:  Determined Women Defy Odds to Open Judy Chicago’s Tribute to Forgotten Lives and Art in its Own Museum, by Ann Marie Lipinksi, Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1981
Finally, We’re Invited to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, by Laura Green, Chicago Sun-Times, September 6, 1981
Newsworthy Art Events: Too Often Not Worth the Fuss, by Alan G. Artner, Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1981
Dinner Party Financing Stirs Controversy, by Sarah Craig, Gay Life, November 20, 1981
A Social Force, Not Circle:  Roslyn Group Brought Power to Chicago Sisterhood – For Good, by Barbara Varro, Chicago Sun-Times, March 9, 1982

return to top | next page





Timeline page home links contact