Controversies at MAG
In 1979 the Gallery got in hot water not for showing controversial art work, but for not showing it. In 1979 the Gallery entered into negotiations with Judy Chicago to show her ground-breaking Dinner Party exhibition in Rochester beginning in December 1979. Archival records show that Gallery staff were enthusiastically planning the exhibition and programming when negotiations broke down between the Gallery and representatives of Ms. Chicago. Responding to a proposed contract revision, Acting Director Bruce Chambers cited greatly increased costs for the show, and contract language that would have allowed Chicago’s Through the Flower Foundation to control exhibition programming and fundraising as factors in the decision to cancel the exhibition. “No one in any decision-making position had problems with the content of the show,” he was quoted. The Gallery received many letters of disappointment, and some coverage in the feminist press suggesting that the Gallery canceled the show due to its content.
The Seattle Museum of Art had also cancelled the exhibition around the same time, resulting in the work being put into storage until a showing was organized in Houston in Spring of 1980. From reading the archival material, it seems likely that neither the Gallery nor Ms. Chicago’s representatives were able to hear the needs of the other. Ms. Chicago had established the Through the Flower Foundation to support the costs of the Dinner Party project, and needed to be able to fund-raise to support costs; at the same time, her representatives were probably not experienced in organizing a major traveling exhibition. On the Gallery’s side, an emphasis on maintaining control of interpretation and programming was not unusual in museums at this time, and the Gallery’s fiscally cautious Board was not likely to be willing to accept increasing installation costs with the optimistic reassurance that costs would be paid off by the high volume of traffic the exhibition would bring. Looking at the plans for programming, and the high quality of speakers who had been contacted, the entire Rochester community was the loser.
After its initial run at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 1979, the Dinner Party “went on a nine-year international tour sparked by grass-roots efforts to find exhibition venues for the piece” (quote from Brooklyn Museum of Art website). It was stored for much of the 1980′s and 1990′s before the Brooklyn Museum purchased the work and reinstalled it in 2002.
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