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. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland opens November 10, 2018 at the Fullerton Museum Center.
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 genteel and 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 relentless 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.
This exhibition was organized by Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO.
- Exhibition: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland
- Host Organization: Fullerton Museum Center
- Runs: November 10, 2018 – January 6, 2019
- Gallery Hours:
- Tuesday – Sunday, 12:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
- Thursdays 12:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
- Location: 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, CA 92832
- $5 General Admission
- $4 Seniors and Students
- $3 Children
- Contact: (714) 738-3331
- Opening Reception:
- Saturday, November 10, 2018
- 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
- $20 General and Free for Museum Members