In recent weeks, much has been written and said about Judy Chicago's gift of ''The Dinner Party'' to the University of the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, much of the debate has been founded on misinformation, distortion and defamatory statements about the university and about individuals who have labored long in the interests of our institution. It is important to set the record straight.
Why the decision was made. Like other public colleges and universities, the University of the District of Columbia must develop strategies to attract increased financial support from the private sector. Because of the District's overall financial condition, the Board of Trustees of UDC has begun developing ways to reduce its reliance on public-sector (i.e., taxpayers') financial support by generating more private-sector interest in the university.
It was within the context of the university's larger endowment objectives that the gift of ''The Dinner Party'' was considered and approved. As one of the best-known pieces of modern art, the prospects for such a gift -- valued at more than $2 million and depicting the struggles of women throughout history -- seemed a highly suitable and desirable magnet for other gifts of art, the collective value of which will support our goals established under matching fund requirements.
In March, the gift of ''The Dinner Party'' was debated in a public session and unanimously approved by the trustees. The meeting was well attended by members of the university community, the press and other interested parties. The gift was unanimously reaffirmed by the trustees at its public meeting in June. At no time did anyone within the university community -- or outside -- express objections to the gift to the trustees until the recent furor was fanned by the misinformation, false and defamatory statements printed in the local press.
Why the Carnegie is being renovated. Since 1986, the university has been authorized to undertake substantial repairs to the Carnegie Library. Because of the deterioration of the building, the D.C. Council urged the university and the Department of Public Works to expedite the long-overdue renovation project.
Once it was determined that "The Dinner Party" would be gifted to the university, the Department of Public Works and university officials determined that it would be most effective and least disruptive to perform simultaneous renovations necessary to exhibit "The Dinner Party" and all other repairs and renovations to the library that were previously authorized, particularly repairing the roof. The scope of the project was, therefore, expanded to include roof repairs, interior building renovations (to include the ground floor community room), upgrading the heating and cooling system, removing a mezzanine that violates the historical integrity of the building and installing a new stairway and elevator. The changes emphasized here have sparked the debate, since all the other repairs are years overdue.
Related financial issues. On March 27, the Board of Trustees approved a resolution to accept "The Dinner Party" and to reprogram $80,000 from non-appropriated, unallocated reserves to pay for moving the artwork from storage in California, insuring the shipment and for installing the artwork in the Carnegie Library. The university fully expects to recoup the money through private contributions.
Because the monies required for implementation of "The Dinner Party" project will be derived from private sources or from the capital budget, the gift will obviously have no negative impact on either the university's budget and resources or its academic programs.
In fact, the board of trustees expects that exhibiting "The Dinner Party" will have a positive impact on our financial condition, because it will generate annually significant sums of nonappropriated revenues from admission fees and from art patrons and other philanthropic individuals and organizations.
Terms of the gift. The gift agreement was drafted along traditional lines of such gifts in the art world, mainly to protect a major work of 20th century art. Since there was no provision for the university to create a permanent endowment, uncertain financial conditions were instituted whereby ongoing monies could be generated to provide curatorial, security and maintenance funds for the life of the piece. Eighty-five percent of all admissions revenues will go directly into the university's endowment fund. The artist has also generously given the university 75 percent of all revenues generated by the rental of audio guides and related educational materials that she may develop about "The Dinner Party" images or replicas likely to be sold around the world.
Unfortunately, some unfounded rumors have been perpetrated, insinuating that one of our trustees would benefit financially from this gift. Such suggestions are preposterous falsehoods. All relationships were fully disclosed and discussed, and no conflicts of interest exist.
The nature of the art. Judy Chicago's work has been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area during the past 15 years. Judy Chicago's paintings, drawings and sculpture have been mounted at local galleries. An intensive community-based effort -- spearheaded by the Washington Women's Art Center -- to bring "The Dinner Party" to the District in the late 1970s did not succeed only because a large enough space could not be secured. Chicago has delivered lectures about "The Dinner Party" at the Smithsonian that are always filled to capacity by District residents who make reservations months in advance. Two years ago, Chicago was invited -- and accepted -- an invitation to talk about "The Dinner Party" and to show slides of her images to the students of St. Alban's Episcopal School, where many members of Congress send their sons to be educated.
Some local press and certain public officials have unfortunately relied on misinformation and have characterized "The Dinner Party" in pejorative terms that are inappropriate and unsubstantiable -- both in the perception of the board of trustees and among noted scholars of American art. The truth is that "The Dinner Party" has always enjoyed an unusually broad, mainstream audience. In addition to a number of museums, the exhibition has been presented by universities and by civic groups. A sampling of support for previous exhibitions includes: in Houston, the Chamber of Commerce and Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce; the American Association of University Women; women of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church; and members of St. Joan's Alliance, a Catholic group.
In Boston, it was officially part of the city's sesquicentennial celebration. In Atlanta, the Junior League provided volunteer staff, and Jean Young -- wife of Mayor Andrew Young -- wrote the appreciative statement on the program cover. In Cleveland, the community renovated the Jewish Temple on the Heights for the exhibition. In Chicago, a suburban reading group joined with a real estate developer to present the exhibit on Printer's Row, which proved a boon to the downtown neighborhood.
Basic human liberties are at stake. Certainly, the board of trustees never anticipated the range of perceptual interpretations that would result in anyone's characterization of this icon of modern creativity as "weird sexual art" -- as it was described by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) on the floor of the House. The mainstream acceptability of "The Dinner Party" images has been demonstrated over and over again. Indeed, replicas of these images are so commonplace that they have been available for sale as commemorative jewelry for many years, and one such replica is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
In considering this gift, the board of trustees could not have predicted that it would find itself catapulted into national debates that traverse many conflicts about political, social and cultural values. But ironically, in our effort to create a marketplace for ideas and expressions about freedom and human dignity, we find we have become a national focus for that debate. For that debate clearly transcends our ability to display a piece of art. Our critics strike at the heart of basic human liberties in their assault on freedom of expression, academic freedom and the autonomy of the people of the District of Columbia.
The writer chairs the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia.