Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland is the first major exhibition to use visual art as a lens to explore the lure that Coney Island exerted on American culture over a period of 150 years. An extraordinary array of artists viewed Coney Island as a microcosm of the American experience, from its beginnings as a watering hole for the wealthy, through its transformation into an entertainment mecca for the masses, to the closing of Astroland Amusement Park following decades of urban decline.
From early depictions of “the people’s beach” by Impressionists William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman to modern and contemporary images by photographers Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, Red Grooms, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, Joseph Stella, Swoon and George Tooker, Coney Island investigates America’s playground as a place and an idea.
The modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island, and the constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists. What these artists saw from 1861 to 2008 at Coney Island 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. Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares, become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.
Coney Island features more than 140 objects—paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts, and carousel animals—supplemented by ephemera and film clips. This is the first exhibition in the museum’s newly expanded and renovated special exhibition galleries.
This NEH-funded exhibition opened in 2015 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, and then traveled to the San Diego Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition is on display at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio from May 11 to September 11, 2016.