Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland

For more than 150 years, Coney Island, a strip of sand at the mouth of New York Harbor, has occupied a singular place in the American imagination. From a beginning as a watering hole for the wealthy, through its transformation into an amusement and entertainment mecca for the masses, to its struggle for renewal in recent decades, an extraordinary array of artists have viewed Coney Island as a microcosm of the American experience. The exhibition brings to life the excitement of Coney Island, showing visitors how its magnetic world of attractions has become a touchstone for American mass culture and popular recreation.

Adapted from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art’s flagship exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, this new traveling exhibition from NEH on the Road will explore America’s playground as a place and as an idea, examining its persistent presence in the American imagination.

The constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists. What they saw and how they chose to portray it varied widely in style and mood over time, mirroring the aspirations and disappointments of the era and of the country. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with each section titled after contemporary quotations that also communicate changing popular perceptions about Coney Island through the generations.

“Down at Coney Isle,” 1861–1894, looks at the resort’s beginnings as “New York’s sandy backyard,” a blend of genteeland popular attractions made accessible by ferry, tram, and steam railway. “The World’s Greatest Playground,” 1895–1929, examines the explosion of entertainment accessible to the masses in parks like Steeplechase, Dreamland, and Luna Park, themselves the settings for fantastic encounters and new technologies.

“The Nickel Empire,” 1930–1939, shows how, after the stock market crash of 1929, Coney Island provided a welcome and affordable diversion, where disorienting rides could spark romance between strangers in a setting where “the greatest show is the people themselves.” From the beginning, Coney Island drew crowds from all social classes, races, and ethnicities, and “A Coney Island of the Mind,” 1940–1961, inspects how Coney Island reflected American life during and after World War II, providing a refuge from the city streets and a setting for intimacy on its crowded beaches, yet also offering metaphors for life and death in amusements like the House of Horrors and the World in Wax Musée.

The final section, “Requiem for a Dream,” 1962–2008, traces Coney’s decline amid turbulent decades that saw urban disinvestment and renewal attempts, including the closing of its last twentieth-century amusement park, Astroland. Yet ultimately, Coney’s persistence and continued re-emergence continue to attract new visions and renewed crowds.

Throughout the exhibition, artifacts display how the modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island. The exhibition investigates the rise of American leisure and traces Coney Island’s influence on amusement parks and popular culture throughout the country. Photographs, ephemera, film clips, and hands-on interactives immerse visitors in the experience of Coney Island.

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Availability

Coney Island will tour April 2017 through March 2022.

This exhibition will be awarded first to new venues, particularly those in states that have not yet hosted NEH on the Road exhibitions: Hawaii and Vermont. E-mail MoreArt (at) maaa.org or call (800) 473-3872, ext. 208, for availability.

Exhibition Details & Specifications

  • Curated By

    Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

  • Organized By

    Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO.
  • Content

    The exhibition features several freestanding units focused on thematic areas incorporating a series of objects, artifacts, photographs, and paper ephemera; audio/video features; interactive stations; and wall-mounted graphics.

  • Duration

    7-week display

  • Rental Fee

    $1,000

  • Grant

    All hosting venues are eligible for a $1,000 Educational and Public Programming grant.

  • Support

    On-site support is free to the opening venue for every new NEH on the Road exhibition and to first-time hosting venues on a limited basis.

  • Shipping:

    Each exhibitor is responsible for the first $1,000 of the outgoing shipping fee to the next venue; NEH on the Road covers the remainder.

  • Security

    Limited

  • Square Feet

    Approximately 2,000 square feet

  • Number of Crates/Total Weight

    TBD

  • Insurance

    The exhibition is fully insured by NEH on the Road at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.