Will Houston host The Dinner Party ?
By Dian Brown
The Houston Contemporary Arts Museum has turned its back on an important
new artwork by nationally acclaimed
artist Judy Chicago. But if a group of
Houston women have their way,
Houstonians may still have an opportunity to see The Dinner Party, called a
"blockbuster" by the San Francisco
Museum of Modern art, where the exhibit opened March 15.
Despite the exhibit's popularity, the
Houston Contemporary Arts Museum
gave Chicago's work the cold shoulder.
Acting Museum Director Betsy Knight
says the CAM board "did not want to
commit itself to an exhibit of this magnitude until the new director is named."
(Buffalo, N.Y., curator Linda Cathcart
comes on board September 1.) The museum couldn't "legally --Gharge an admission fee since they do not have a
permanent collection." The museum was
not in a financial position right now to
sponsor The Dinner Party, said Knight.
"Hogwash," said Mary Ross Taylor,
head of Texas Arts & Cultural Organization (TACO), a group formed to bring
The Dinner Party to Houston.
"I've been going through this charade
with the board for three months. In the
beginning, I was willing to be a good
sport and work through all the channels.
But then we began to realize they were
wasting our time. Avoiding, postponing,
sending us around in circles. It's a form of
contempt, really. Why couldn't they just
come out and say they didn't want the
The CAM board has refused to meet
with TACO representatives to discuss
raising the money. "They even refused
to acknowledge in writing that they
wouldn't meet with us," said Taylor.
"They never gave us anything in writing.
It was very unprofessional. We can only
conclude from their stonewalling, that
they've denied The Dinner Party on its
The CAM was first approached about
the exhibit back in April by San Francisco Museum Director Henry Hopkins,
who was enthusiastically promoting the
show. By the time the exhibit closed
June 17, the museum's controller Sheldon St. John said it had brought in
$10,000 a week for the institution,
which upped its regular $1.25 admission
fee to $2.00, and thereby increased its
average $2,500 weekly income fourfold.
"We've never seen anything bring in
money like this has," St. John said.
"There was a two-hour wait to get in
every day. The response has been absolutely tremendous," they told Houston.
The CAM wasn't interested.
two board members were in favor of
sponsoring the Chicago exhibit.
(Jim Searls and Sissy Kempner were outspoken in their support. Some board
members even offered to help raise the
money.) But the problem, according to
Taylor, was the lack of support for the
exhibit on the CAM executive board.
"This incident is an instant replay of
what Houston artists have been going
through with the museum for years.
The Contemporary Arts Museum has used
and bled the community and bled the
artists. They're killing the arts in
Houston. You can call around the coun-
"I wanted to make a piece that was beyond judgment.
For example, if you go and you see the Sistine Chapel
you don't say, 'Oh, I don't like it.' If s irrelevant whether
you like it or not. Whether it's good or bad is irrelevant,
it simply stands as a testament to human achievement.
When I was in Europe traveling around I went to the
Leger Museum and the Matisse Chapel and Picasso's
house. And I so longed to see that kind of achievement
having been made by a woman."
—Judy Chicago in Chrysalis
"San Francisco can charge admission.
We can't," said Knight. "At the time we
were approached, we didn't have a director, and we couldn't have afforded it
without an outside organization putting
up at least $20,000. It's too late for
October. But the door is never closed."
"Don't get me wrong," said Taylor,
"Betsy Knight is a very honest, professional woman who's been put in a terrible position. I don't think any door is
open there at all.
"They're certainly telling the truth
when they say they can't afford it.
But what's significant to me is they
refused to meet with a group of Houstonians who are offering them a way to
get the money. They're a public institution, funded by city funds, charged
with offering a service to the public.
But there is no accountability."
In addition to appeals from TACO,
Hopkins and others in the arts, at least
try and hear horror stories about our
"They're trying to keep a low profile.
But their profile is so low it's going to
render them no longer an institution
of contemporary art. There is no way
to have the judgement of history on the
art of the present moment. The board
doesn't realize that a museum of contemporary art is going to have to take some
chances," said Taylor.
Meanwhile, TACO has been shopping
around Houston, looking for another
institution to sponsor the exhibit. The
Museum of Fine Arts is not interested.
"We checked," said Taylor. "They can
legitimately say it's the province of the
Contemporary Arts Museum. So that lets
them off the hook."
Rice, the University of Houston, and
St. Thomas have also been contacted.
Ironically, the University of Houston,
which has shown the most enthusiasm
for The Dinner Party, doesn't have the
space: the Blaffer Gallery is too small
for the unusually shaped work. And the
oblong gallery in the Rice Museum won't
accomodate the square-shaped table
either. TACO is still shopping, negotiating
and looking for contributions. For more
information, or to give donations, contact
TACO at 4601 University Oaks, Houston,
The problems confronting the showing
of the Chicago exhibit aren't peculiar to
Houston. The Seattle Art Museum where
The Dinner Party was to go after San
Francisco, shelved the idea "on grounds
that the exhibition space it originally
set aside has been pre-empted." And the
Rochester, N.Y. Art Museum, which was
to have shown the exhibit in October,
is now waffling about whether to reschedule it in 1980.
"They all say the piece is too big, or
it isn't art, or they want us to raise the
money to show it," Chicago explained.
"Most of them see our approach as
'pressure,' and they feel it's incumbent
on them to resist," the artist said in a
New York Times interview in April.
With the exhibit's closing June 17,
Chicago and her non-profit corporation,
Through the Flower, which owns the
work, face the prospect of storing the
exhibit at a cost of $1,000 per month,
unless another sponsoring institution
can be found. That prospect, combined
with the unpaid bills leftover from the
$250,000 initial costs of the project
have put Chicago in the red.
"The level of awareness of people
attending the exhibit-even feminists-
is extraordinarily naive," said Taylor.
"Because they're so awed by what they
see, they envision pots of money going
directly to The Dinner Party. But they
have no concept of what the exhibit
cost to get together and no concept
of the expense of transporting it, setting
it up, insuring, promoting it."
Unless Chicago and her organization
can obtain more sponsoring institutions,
the bil1" will continue to pile up, and the
public will be denied access to an important tribute to womankind.
Dian Brown is a working feminist.