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Birthday Party for the Woman’s Building

The Woman’s Building, founded on the anger and righteousness of 1970s feminists, today celebrates its 15th anniversary with an open house, a birthday party and a display of pure, delicious playfulness.

“Birthday cakes,” made by artists in myriad non-edible media, are on exhibit at the woman’s art and culture center. There’s a cake shaped like an erupting volcano crafted of paper mulch over chicken wire, a glitzy, silver cake that shows videos, and a gaudy, upside-down cake with 15 flickering, candle-shaped light bulbs that looks like a chandelier.

“We’ve dealt with some very serious subjects in the past 15 years, from sexual child abuse to homelessness to race relations,” said Terry Wolverton, the executive director. “We wanted to do something really celebratory and lighthearted for the anniversary.”

The culinary creations by 16 women artists in “Having Our Cake” will be sold at the Woman’s Building, located just north of Chinatown, in a silent auction to benefit the center during its official birthday party today from 6 to 10 p.m.

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The free open house is for old friends and newcomers who want to learn about the nonprofit alternative organization, Wolverton said. Champagne will flow and “Member’s Salon,” a larger, multimedia exhibit will also be on view (both shows through today).

Fun and frivolity aside, it’s taken a lot of hard work to keep the Woman’s Building up and running since 1973, said Wolverton, who has seen it rebound from near insolvency, adapt its mission as feminism matured and weather other storms to emerge as a viable institution that she said still fills a need.

“Woman’s organizations and nonprofit arts organizations go under every day,” said Wolverton, 34, who has worked at the center for 12 years teaching, writing, typesetting and directing fund raising. “The fact that we are still here is a testimony to how viable and needed our mission is.”

Founded by artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven, the Woman’s Building flourished early on with art exhibitions, writing workshops, performances and other activities. Groups lodged there included the Lesbian Art Project and the National Organization for Women. But various problems began in 1975 when the center moved from near MacArthur Park to its current address in a downtown industrial district.

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In 1981, decreased government funds and increased costs nearly closed it down. Reorganizing to survive, business savvy administrators ended the Feminist Studio Workshop, an educational program that was long the heart of the institution, leased space used for performance art, and established a typesetting business. There were some losses, but the effort worked.

The center is trying to recover from the sale of its no-longer-profitable typesetting venture, which Wolverton said was bringing in $40,000 annually. And there are still detractors “who dismiss us as being too special or too funky or too female or too political.”

But since 1981, the Woman’s Building’s budget has more than doubled to $300,000, she said. “Our programs, which include exhibitions, performance, literary readings, video screenings and workshops, have quadrupled, and where we had 300 paid memberships in 1981, we have 1,200 now.”

Staying current with the woman’s movement has kept the center vital too, Wolverton said. An emphasis on career advancement--exhibition and marketing--replaced a focus on individuals’ artistic and personal development. The center also broadened its constituency and shed its separatist stance. Participation from the multicultural community increased and concerns extended beyond women’s issues. For the first time, men curated an exhibition in 1986, “Gentlemen’s Choice.”

Indeed, could gains made by the woman’s movement mean the center has outlived its usefulness? Absolutely not, Wolverton said.

Progress has been made, she said, noting that women artists are currently enjoying solo exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But, a study by the National Assn. of Artists’ Organizations shows that women now make up 40% of professional artists, yet their work is presented in mainstream arts institutions about 10% of the time.

Mary Jane Jacob, MOCA’s chief curator, agreed that the work must continue. “There are still some battles to be won, dialogues to have and new issues that have come up regarding women in the art world. . . . The Woman’s Building has done a remarkable job in 15 years and is definitely still needed.”

Said Wolverton: “The day that women artists can be fully represented in proportion to their numbers and women’s experience is considered appropriate content for art, I think the Woman’s Building will be glad to close its doors.”

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