Dreamland as Muse: A Look Back at 150 Years of Coney Island Art, Photography, and Film

Harvey Stein (American, born 1941). The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile, 1982. Digital, inkjet archival print, 13 x 19 in. (33 x 48.3 cm). Collection of the artist. © Harvey Stein, 2011

Since evolving from swampy farmland into the so-called People’s Playground in the late 1800s, Coney Island has served as the go-to destination for some of New York City’s weirdest characters: exhibitionist mermaids, paintball freaks, fortune tellers, elephant brothel patrons, and, more recently, lifesize SpongeBobs and Mickey Mouses. All of which has helped make Coney Island a muse for artists, photographers, and filmmakers for more than 150 years.

The Brooklyn Museum has just announced they’ll soon be opening a major exhibition dedicated to the whimsical visual record such artists have created, called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

The mixed-media exhibit captures Coney Island’s campy, trippy aesthetic with a hodgepodge of photographs by the likes of Walker Evans, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus (since Coney Island was basically tailor-made for a Diane Arbus photo shoot). Also on view are pastoral seascapes from the 1800s; sideshow posters galore; a turn-of-the-century gambling wheel and carousel animals presented like sculpture; film stills from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream; and a modernist abstract composition by Frank Stella. With red and yellow stripes around a blue square, Stella distills the sand and sea and sun into a primary-colored flag for Brooklyn’s most famous destination.

Samuel S. Carr (American, 1837–1908). Beach Scene, circa 1879. Oil on canvas, 12 x 20 in. (30.5 x 50.8 cm). Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts; Bequest of Annie Swan Coburn (Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn)

In these pictures, Coney Island serves as a microcosm of American mass culture as a whole, and the chronology of 140 art objects here chart major societal shifts, from the dawn of the Great Depression to desegregation. “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,” Dr. Robin Jaffee Frank, curator of the exhibit, which Wadsworth Athenaeum helped organize, said in a statement. “What these artists saw from 1861 to 2008 at Coney Island, and the varied ways in which they chose to portray it, mirrored the aspirations and disappointments of the era and 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.”

Milton Avery (American, 1885–1965). The Steeplechase, Coney Island, 1929. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (81.3 x 101.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Sally M. Avery, 1984 (1984.527). Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Art Resource, New York; © 2013 Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A few images reflect the darker days of this collective soul, revealing a side of the island’s history that’s often glazed over in narratives of the place as all fun and games. One 1930 photograph by Edward J. Kelty shows the Harlem Black Birds, an African-American musical revue assembled for a sideshow at Coney Island. In the center of the image, famed tap dancer King Rastus Brown wears a derby and smokes a cigar, while two comics in blackface perch on booths labeled “HIGH CLASS COLORED REVUE.” It’s an example of the seamy underbelly of so-called Dreamland’s corner of the entertainment industry in the 30s, and a reminder of the segregation that plagued Coney Island until the 1960s–beaches and bathhouses had white-only sections. But works by contemporary artists like Daze and Swoon highlight the comparative diversity and freedom of modern-day Coney Island, the place former Borough President Marty Markowitz liked to call “America’s favorite playground.”

Here, a chronology of highlights from the upcoming exhibit.

Edward J. Kelty (American, 1888–1967). Harlem Black Birds, Coney Island, 1930. Photograph, 12 x 20 in. (30.5 x 50.8 cm). Collection of Ken Harck. © Edward J. Kelty 1938: A couple sitting embraces on a crowded beach.  Coney Island, Brooklyn.  New York, New York, 1938. 01/01/1938 Photo by Morris Engel/Getty Images Homer Page (American, 1918–1985). Coney Island, July 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2008.47.6. ©Homer Page.  Photo: John Lamberton Gambling Wheel, 1900–20. Wood, glass, metal, 65 x 14 in. (165.1 x 35.6 cm). Collection of The New-York Historical Society; Purchase, 1995.2 Frank Stella (American, born 1936). Coney Island, 1958. Oil on canvas, 85 ¼ x 78 7/8 in. (216.5 x 200.3 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; Gift of Larom B. Munson, B.A., 1951, 1971.38. © 2013 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Frederick Brosen (American, born 1954). Fortune Teller, Jones Walk, Coney Island, 2008. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 17 7/8 x 11 ¼ in. (45.4 x 28.6 cm). Courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York. Photo: Joshua Nefsky, courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York; © 2013 Frederick Brosen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Daze (American, born 1962). Coney Island Pier, 1995. Oil on canvas, 60 x 80 in. (152.4 x 203.2 cm). Collection of the artist Arnold Mesches (American, born 1923). Anomie 1991: Winged Victory, 1991. Acrylic on canvas, 92 x 135 in. (233.7 x 342.9 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art; Museum purchase with partial funding from the Richard Florsheim Art Fund, 1993.1. © 2013 Arnold Mesches Requiem for a Dream, production still, directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2000. Artisan Entertainment. Photo: Artisan/Photofest; © Artisan

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 is on view at The Brooklyn Museum from November 20th, 2015 to March 13, 2016.

Around Brooklyn

See More


  1. This looks and sounds so incredible. I love that The Brooklyn museum has exhibits that differ but are just as valid as anything you can see in the more traditional museums. Having grown up in Coney island I’m especially excited that they’re showing this awesome looking retrospective. Coney island history is truly American history as there were so many firsts that happened in Coney. Times have drastically changed but way back then there was no other place like it in the world. I love learning about the history and seeing anything related to my old neighborhood. Growing up I could perfectly see Astroland from my terrace all lit up and dazzling in the night. Although I was there for the bad times of the seventies and eighties, there was nothing like being a teenager and having some crazy fun times at the all night beach parties with roaring fires that you could never get going these days. Running the streets and pretending we were The Warriors..What a blast we had.