This summer we wrote about Coney Island’s outlandish charm and epic history, the crinkle-cut fries and family-run confectionary businesses. Maybe you visited and let its authentic weirdness wash over you. Today, Coney Island is back on our radar thanks to Coney Island: Visions Of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008, which opens Friday, Nov. 20 at the Brooklyn Museum. Conceptualized and organized by Robin Jaffe Frank, Chief Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, the exhibit, while humble in its execution, is groundbreaking in its approach. Frank’s original look at a small corner of the world, a seaside neighborhood in Brooklyn, reveals a mecca of the American spirit, a study of mass culture, and a metaphor for the past 150 years of U.S. history.
“It was very important for Robin that the exhibit was shown in Brooklyn, and when she approached us about it, everyone was immediately on board,” says Connie H. Choi, the Brooklyn Museum’s Assistant Curator of American Art. Featuring more than 140 photos, paintings and objects, Visions Of An American Dreamland offers a little bit of everything, from a stoic carousel horse designed by Charles Carmel circa 1914, to an oil landscape by painter William Merrit Chas, to a saturated still from Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 psychological drama, Requiem For A Dream, Coney Island’s Parachute Jump peering out from behind Jared Leto. “As visitors will see, there really is no single medium that best expresses Coney Island,” says Choi. “There’s everything from paintings and sculpture, to photographs and films, to sideshow banners, carousel horses, and architectural fragments–it’s a place where different voices are always welcome.” A series of black and white photographs depicting the prime of Coney Island as the “people’s beach,” a medley of floppy hats, genuine smiles, and sandy affections, are particular standouts.
The exhibit is divided chronologically into five sections, with each illustrating how Coney Island mirrored the mood of the nation at the time. Regardless of the year or medium “there’s a universality to the themes across the works here,” explains Choi. “For one, many of the artists were immigrants and went to Coney because they saw it as an embodiment of everything they expected of the United States. There’s a magic and allure about this place that’s transcended time.”
In addition to Visions Of An American Dreamland, two related exhibitions, Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection and Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull) will open at the Brooklyn Museum on Nov. 20. All three run through March 13, 2016. Additional programming includes a roundtable with contemporary sideshow performers on Nov. 21, and a banner-making workshop with artist Marie Roberts on Dec. 19.