The tape recorders were running. The television lights were in place. The reporters were ready with questions for artist Judy Chicago. Finally, one of the men asked: Exactly what are those shapes on the plates in "The Dinner Party"?

"That's a fair question," responded Chicago, a small bundle of high energy and fluffy red hair. Then, the artist who was forced years ago to confront critics who saw pornographic images of women's reproductive systems in her work, posed a question of her own:

"If the Washington Monument's thrusting sexual form and aggressive shape can be discussed in terms of aesthetic rather than phallic implications, why can't open organic metamorphic forms be understood in terms of their multi-layered beauty?"

The dozen reporters at the University of the District of Columbia's Carnegie Library yesterday dutifully noted the response.

The news conference was convened by Chicago, who plans to give "The Dinner Party" to UDC, and by UDC trustees, who see the piece as the beginning of a multicultural center at the Carnegie Library for creative ideas dealing with human dignity and freedom.

Pornography was only one of the issues raised. The other concerned UDC's plan to spend $1.6 million so that the library, at Mount Vernon Square in downtown Washington, could become the new home for the artwork, now stored in a California warehouse.

That decision comes at a time when the university is still grappling with the May 15 firing of President Rafael L. Cortada, questions about management, the suspension of the football program and questions about the university's future role.

Some of the students at UDC who are aware of the plans for the artwork at the library are wondering about the board's spending priorities.

"There are just too many things around here they could do," Derrick Campbell, a UDC math major, said in an interview yesterday. "They have graduate students here whose paychecks bounce . . . they still haven't paid for the campus buses. It's just ludicrous."

Some students at the main Van Ness campus also complained that the artwork will be housed downtown. "Lots of people don't even go to that library," said Loren A. Smith. "They come up here {Van Ness} to go to this library."

Board Chairwoman Nira H. Long and Chicago announced at the news conference that an agreement has been signed for "Dinner Party" to be exhibited in the Carnegie Library after the library has been repaired and renovated.

Long said it will be at least a year before the piece, a triangular work of porcelain and needlework that measures 48 feet along each side, can be installed here and opened to public viewing.

The Department of Public Works has estimated that interior renovation of the building, including removal of the mezzanine, installation of new stairs and elevator and upgrading of the heating and cooling systems, will cost $1.6 million. Repairs for the library, such as a new roof, will cost an additional $650,000, public works officials said.

The D.C. Council last week approved a $1.2 million bond issue to cover some of the work.

But the cost to the city for the bonds, over a 20-year payback period and an interest rate of about 7.5 percent, will be about $2.4 million, according to the city's budget office.

Council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large), chairwoman of the committee that oversees UDC, said she had no reservations about the cost associated with bringing "Dinner Party" to the District or with the contents of the artwork.

"I am a lover of the arts," said Mason, who attended the news conference, watched the slides of "Dinner Party" presented by Chicago and listened to reporters' questions. "I believe that art is as important to the soul as food is to the body."

Long said none of the trustees expected any questions about their decision to provide a home for "Dinner Party" and to provide up to 35 percent of the revenues from admissions and other fund-raising activities to artist Chicago, her nonprofit Through the Flower Foundation and to the maintenance of "Dinner Party."

"It never occurred to us that there would be any controversy," said Long.

Chicago also expressed surprise at some publicity suggesting that the artwork is pornographic. "When 'Dinner Party' appeared {in 1979}, it was a challenge to modern art theory and ideas," she said.

"But the piece has traveled for 10 years. The debate has changed. What I am mystified by is how anybody can take seriously such old thinking."

Staff writer Sharon Epperson contributed to this report.