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Reverberating Feminisms: Chronologies of Feminist Art Movements at CalArts: Feminist History at CalArts

Feminist Art History at CalArts

In 1971, CalArts faculty members and noted artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro co-founded the Feminist Art Program (FAP). Based on the experimental program Chicago had started at Fresno State College the previous year, the FAP at CalArts was one of the first in the country to offer team taught courses on female art history taught exclusively by women for women only. Also founded in 1971 was the Women’s Design Program, led by Sheila de Bretteville. Like the FAP, the Women’s Design Program was a one-year program that focused on participation in various processes by which art is created, including group consciousness raising sessions, performance workshops, and reading of feminist literature.

Approximately twenty-five young women artists joined the FAP during the program’s opening year. Work on the program’s first class project, “Womanhouse,” began on November 8, 1971. The purpose of “Womanhouse” was to “provide a better understanding of women artists by themselves and by the predominately male art community.” Together the artists transformed a deserted, seventeen-room, Los Angeles mansion into an exhibit space. Each artist chose a portion of the house in which she had complete freedom to “explore aspects of female experience” through her art.

Postcard announcing Ablutions, a performance by Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandy Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani on Tuesday, June 6th, 1972 in Venice, California.

The completion of “Womanhouse” coincided with the West Coast Women Artists’ Conference, hosted by CalArts. Despite its name, the conference included participants from states all over the country. On the evening of Friday, January 21, 1972, the conference commenced with a tour of “Womanhouse” followed by performances presented in the living room of the house. The next morning, Schapiro opened the official conference during which various women artists gave talks, showed slides of artwork, and discussed the exclusion of women from major museum exhibits and gallery spaces. “Womanhouse” opened for public exhibition on January 30, 1972. Approximately 4,000 visitors viewed the house and attended the evening performances over the course of the installation’s exhibit period.

Activities related to feminist art continued to emerge throughout the early 1970s. On June 6, 1972, an exhibit entitled “Ablutions,” developed and created by Chicago and three students, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel and Aviva Rahmani, opened for public exhibition off-campus. In 1973, Chicago, de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven founded the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), the first independent school for women artists. That same year, the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles was also founded. Other events held at CalArts included the Feminist Art Festival which took place from May 27-31, 1974. However, despite the positive impact of such activities, the FAP dissolved, mainly as a result of Chicago and Schapiro’s departures in 1973 and 1975 respectively.

Although many of the organized feminist art programs at CalArts formally ceased to exist, beliefs and ideas cultivated from the programs of the early 1970s continued to be influential. In May 1998, CalArts students, alumni, and faculty began meeting to discuss those programs and their effects on feminist art. Based on these meetings, the Feminist Art Workshop took place from September 28-October 3, 1998. Individuals from CalArts, as well as people from other Southern California art institutions, participated in various discussions, events, and workshops. From March 5-10, 2007, a student-organized event entitled Exquisite Acts & Everyday Rebellions was held consisting of exhibitions, performances, workshops, and a day long symposium of panel discussions. Such events are responsible for preserving the role CalArts played in the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

Suzanne Lacy, Car Renovations, 1972. Performance created under the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, assignment from Judy Chicago class, highway 126, from Newhall to the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Lacy Studio.

On September 13th, 2023, REDCAT opened an exhibition titled The Feminist Art Program (1970–1975): Cycles of Collectivity which acknowledges the many generations of women, trans, queer, and non-binary faculty, students, and artists who have stewarded feminist practice and history through teaching, archiving, and experimentation. Engaging with early feminist art materials from the 70s while drawing connections with subsequent programming in the 90s and 2000s, The Feminist Art Program (1970–1975): Cycles of Collectivity brings together overlapping histories, diverse feminisms, gender theories, and transfeminismos. Their exhibition gathered materials from institutional and personal archives and paired them with new artworks by CalArts alumni ak jenkins, Andrea Bowers, Gala Porras-Kim, and Suzanne Lacy. The Feminist Art Program (1970–1975): Cycles of Collectivity presents feminist contributions to art and pedagogy with a multiplicity of voices, contexts, and identities, with an intergenerational collective of scholars, artists, activists, and curators contributing to the research, memory, syllabi, and artworks on display.

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Reverberating Feminisms: Chronologies of Feminist Art Movements at CalArts exhibition and accompanying guides were compiled by the CalArts Library. If you have any questions or suggestions about the exhibition, please contact us at