Why did I think that California was a particularly fertile ground for all this to happen? I don’t think it could have ever happened in New York. New York is hell-bent on separating one person from another because of the competition. And in California, there was some chance for us to get together. And it was as simple as that. —Miriam Schapiro
Intro to story
While the Students 5 found a boys club at Barney's Beanery, not all artists moving to the West Coast received the same welcome. In response, artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro started working on the fringes of the art world, creating networks of artist-run spaces, collectives, workshops, and public art projects.
Chicago, a former native of the city that inspired her chosen name, moved to Los Angeles in 1957 to attend UCLA. After graduating with an MFA in 1964, she moved into an apartment on Western Avenue next to Joe Goode, one of the Students 5. She often went to the art galleries on La Cienega Boulevard and hung out at Barney’s Beanery with the Ferus guys, but she remembers that, as a woman, she never really fit in. While she had moderate success showing her work at Rolf Nelson Gallery and at the University of California, Fullerton, she recalls that her “visibility and acceptance was always marginal and contingent.” Chicago realized that her art had diverged from who she was, and she moved to Fresno to forge a new path.
Taking a job at Fresno State College, Chicago posted flyers around campus inviting women who were looking to become artists to join her new course. Fifteen women—dubbed the California Girls—enrolled, and the Feminist Art Program began. Chicago remembers her thinking at the time:
"I suspected that the reason women had trouble realizing themselves as artists was related to their conditioning as women. . . . I thought that if my situation was similar to that of other women, then perhaps my struggle might serve as a model for the struggle out of gendered conditioning that a woman would have to make if she were to realize herself artistically. I was sure that this process would take some time. Therefore, I set up the Fresno program with the idea that I would work intensely with the fifteen women I chose as students." 1
National Museum of Women in the Arts Video
Chicago taught them many aspects of being an artist, including how to turn a raw space into an artist studio to how to introduce oneself with confidence. These activities were in and of themselves an act of consciousness-raising and political activism aligned with the tenants of the 1960s' second-wave feminism, which expanded on first-wave feminism’s fight for women’s rights, especially the right to vote, in the 19th and early 20th century to address a wider and more nuanced range of feminist issues, including reproductive rights, economic parity, and sexual violence. This new wave of feminist thinking and activism played a significant role in the practice of many woman artists. In much the same way that Chicago determined her self-identity by selecting a new last name (she was born Judith Sylvia Cohen), she also urged other women to take control of their own definitions and identities:
The program caught the eye of artist Miriam Schapiro, who taught painting at the newly formed CalArts, and she invited Chicago to bring the program—and the California Girls—to her school in Valencia. Chicago accepted the offer and for one of their first projects, they worked on a series of collaborative, site-specific installations and performances staged in a rundown mansion in Hollywood. The project was titled Womanhouse, and was groundbreaking for its use of performance, installation, and craft as well as for embracing women’s experiences as source material for fine art.
Within a year, Chicago resigned over differences in opinion with Schapiro. Even before her tenure had ended, however, Chicago started making plans for a new independent program. Collaborating with CalArt teachers Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven she established the Feminist Studio Workshop as an alternative art-education experience for women.
In need of a larger space, Chicago, de Bretteville, and Raven rented the former Chouinard Art Institute building, located at 743 Grandview Avenue, for the Feminist Studio Workshop. They brought a coalition of other feminist organizations into the building and named it after the 1883 Columbian World Exposition's Woman's Building, which was built by a woman architect and contained examples of feminine creativity and ingenuity and hosted lectures on women's issues, including prostitution, childcare, and the right to vote. The Women's Building officially opened on November 28, 1973.
In March 1979, Chicago's The Dinner Party, a monumental art installation representing women throughout history, opened at SFMOMA. The collaborative spirit of Chicago's previous projects was carried into the creation of The Dinner Party: more than 400 artists contributed to the work.