The event was surprisingly instructional, laying out the practical mechanisms for preserving women’s cultural production. Archivists and librarians described the various grants they’d received for feminist archival efforts and offered to share planning documents or preservation tips upon request.
Chicago and the archivists’ advice to young female artists: Document everything. As soon as you make the first piece you deem professional-level, keep index cards detailing all of your work and the context in which you made it. Photograph your process. If you’re lucky enough that the work sells, keep track of who buys it.
The project of protecting and representing Chicago’s life’s work is continuous with the essential goals of her art itself. She has spent her life working to write women into history, and now she is trying to ensure that her carefully documented work of the past sixty years does not disappear.
Take, for example, her best known piece, The Dinner Party, now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum. Chicago and 400 volunteers spent five laborious years building the installation, a monumental dinner table set for 39 historical and mythical western women. Chicago wanted to salvage their memories.
The piece was as much a work of historical preservation as it was artistic creation. It required rigorous inquiry into histories that barely existed, which often meant combing through the histories of men in search of incidental references to women. It was met with disdain in 1979 by mostly male critics who deemed it crass and didactic, and has more recently faced criticism for representing an exclusionary second-wave feminism centered on white and cisgender women — in other words, excluding those most vulnerable to historical erasure. Chicago has rebutted that the work in fact opened up paths for researching the lives of marginalized women that didn’t exist before. Speaking on the phone before the portal launch, Chicago told me, “I hope that it will be easier for young women to find me than it was for me to find my predecessors, before there was an Internet and before there was Google. I still found them, and it changed my life.”
Chicago’s career became inextricable from what is now known as the Feminist Art Movement when she founded the Feminist Art Project at Fresno State College — now California State University, Fresno — in 1970. The following year, she and the artist Miriam Schapiro relocated the program to the California Institute of the Arts, rechristening it the Feminist Art Program and bringing several of her Fresno students along. The program was the first of its kind.
“It’s always interesting to me when people talk about feminist art as if there is no such thing as masculinist art,” Chicago told the crowd at the Schlesinger. The masculinity in art, as she sees it, is often an emphasis on formal elements. “When you think about this in terms of the construct of femininity and masculinity, it makes total sense. What do we expect of men? To be strong to be unemotional… and so we go right from that to form! Shape! Color! Line!” She referred to a New York Times article written earlier this year about the sculptor Richard Serra, in which he described his latest exhibition as his “heaviest show ever.”
“I mean, can you imagine talking about art in terms of how much it weighs?” Chicago asked.
She argued that prioritizing form over the content of art creates an inherent bias in traditional university art classes — subject matter can be disregarded in critiques. In New Mexico in the 1990s, a male friend of Chicago’s, a professor, approached her about meeting with a young woman whose work he felt unequipped to critique. Chicago visited the student. She saw eviscerated torsos hanging up in the studio. Having encountered plenty of work that dealt with sexual violence before, Chicago asked, “Who molested you?”
The young woman burst into tears, Chicago recalls, and replied that when she had showed the work to her professors, they had discussed whether it might be better to hang the torsos from an I-beam. They ignored the subject matter. They also did not address, Chicago adds, “the fact that she was having a lot of difficulty creating a sufficient aesthetic distance from the subject matter to actually make art."
Men’s art, Chicago said, also receives special attention under the lens of academic study. “There's a huge amount of unknown work by women that is worthy of study, conservation, archiving, preserving and would be a contribution to the future, instead of writing another goddamn Ph.D. on Jeff Koons.”
The institutional commitment to archiving Chicago’s work is rare for women artists, especially the portal’s cross-institutional coalition, which she called “a feminist intervention… collaboration at an institutional level to make sure that my archives will be preserved.”
It’s built to last. “Harvard is never going out of business,” Chicago noted. Instead of her work’s longevity relying on the political commitments of individuals — who might change jobs, shift priorities, or retire — the portal has its roots in a network of collections, each accountable to the others. It can’t slip away.
Chicago said that although she tends to operate outside of institutions, she is naturally concerned with them because it is through institutions that art history is formed and culture passed on. There’s a difference between who gets to make art and who is included in the arc of art history, and for her, it is critical the two not be conflated. Even an abundance of exhibitions by women doesn’t ensure what Chicago calls “the permanent overcoming of erasure.”
“Young women artists have been operating on the idea that everything has changed,” she warned me over the phone, citing a study released last month by Artnet on the works acquired by major U.S. museums over the past decade. It found that only 11 percent of works were made by women, and only 3.3 percent of those women were African American. “That means that the changes are cosmetic, not institutional,” Chicago said. In forming art history, she believes that museum acquisitions, permanent collections, auction records, and monographs are more important than exhibitions.
The painter Christina Schlesinger, who moderated the portal launch, explained that in rotating exhibitions, the work has often not been purchased by the institution. “It’s not going to change the institutional commitment to women artists, or artists of color,” she said.
“That is something people really are going to have to begin to understand if there’s going to be change,” Chicago responded to Schlesinger. “It can look like change, smell like change, seem like change — and not be.”
At the question and answer period following Chicago’s talk, several women lined up to tell her about the bodies of artwork dwelling impatiently in their basements, made by their mothers and grandmothers, women they described as prolific and special artists in their own time. They asked for advice on how to share these womens’ artistic contributions with the world. Chicago was sympathetic but candid about how little she could do for them. She told one woman apologetically, “It has been all I can manage to take care of my own work.”