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America's oldest public art museum presents first exhibition exploring Coney Island through visual art
Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, tempera on board, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Dorothy Clark Archibald and Thomas L. Archibald Fund, The Krieble Family Fund for American Art, The American Paintings Purchase Fund, and The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 2013.1.1. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

HARTFORD, CONN.- “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008”—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—opens Jan. 31, 2015, and runs through May 31, 2015, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. The exhibition will be the inaugural presentation in the museum’s newly expanded and renovated special exhibition galleries.

“Coney Island” will feature more than 140 objects, comprised of both celebrated icons of American art and rarely-shown works from both public and private collections, including paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts and carousel animals. Ephemera, sound recordings and film clips will immerse visitors in the popular culture of Coney Island. Dr. Robin Jaffee Frank, Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, is organizing the exhibition.

“‘Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland’ traces the rise, decline and struggle of Coney Island to be reborn, revealing how and why this place became part of Americans’ collective memory,” said Frank. “We hope, by examining the resort’s evocative past through the eyes of artists, the exhibition will contribute to reimagining Coney Island’s possible future.”

Coney Island’s fascinating history as a world-famous resort and a national cultural symbol was shaped by the times—and it helped to shape the times. Artists’ visions of Coney Island became a vehicle to imagine the future, to convey changing ideas about leisure, and to explore the mixing of people from different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, transcending social boundaries.

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 Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Red Grooms, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, Joseph Stella, and George Tooker, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland” will investigate America’s playground as a place and an idea. The exhibition will bring to life the excitement of Coney Island, which occupies not only a strip of sand in Brooklyn but also a singular place in the American imagination.

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.

The exhibition’s section titles are taken from contemporary quotations that communicate changing popular perceptions—vividly conveyed by the artwork—about America’s Playground through the generations: Down at Coney Isle,” 1861–1894; “The World’s Greatest Playground,” 1895–1929; “The Nickel Empire,” 1930–1939; “A Coney Island of the Mind,” 1940–1961; and “Requiem for a Dream,” 1962–2008.

“Coney Island” will be the first exhibition presented in the Wadsworth Atheneum’s newly refurbished galleries. The museum’s renovation project, which will be complete September 2015, is reclaiming nearly 16,000 square feet of space for the presentation of collections and special exhibitions. Several of these new galleries will open Jan. 31, 2015, with an innovative installation of nearly 100 pieces of modern and contemporary art—both audience favorites and new acquisitions.

“The Wadsworth Atheneum is honored that this epic exhibition about Coney Island will inaugurate our exquisitely refurbished special exhibition galleries,” said Susan L. Talbott, Director and C.E.O. of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. “This exhibition commences another chapter in the museum’s legacy of presenting artistically and historically significant works of art to inspire our visitors.”

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