Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland: An Interview with Chief Curator René Paul Barilleaux

Q. Why did you organize Coney Island to come to the McNay?

René: The exhibition has four cities, and we’re the last, the fourth. San Antonio is a tourist destination with large amusement parks like Fiesta and Sea World, so we thought [Coney Island] had a nice connection to the city. The exhibition also had the popular culture aspects of it, and I was attracted to it not being just purely fine art but being more popular culture, artifacts, and imagery. Timing was perfect, as it was planned to run throughout the summer.

Q. What was the appeal of this exhibition?

René: I think the thing that personally struck me, and probably a lot of visitors, is the fact that so many artists have been intrigued by Coney Island as a subject. So many different kind of artists, both historical and contemporary, found something about it, something that has attracted artists for a hundred and fifty years. So it has this constant lure. In some ways it makes sense that photographers would be attracted to it, but painters are attracted to it as well, and filmmakers. What I love about the way the exhibition was conceived and organized is that all of those things come together with a kind of equal weight. Film is presented with photography which is presented with paintings which is presented with folk art, or presented with popular imagery. It’s all presented together, there’s no distinctions, there is not a hierarchy between them. It is all about the same place and the same ideas.

Q. What do you want people to experience when they see this exhibition?

René: I think Coney Island and other similar places around the country, have this mythic kind of identity. You have this idea of what you assume it’s going to be, especially if you’ve never been there, or what you’ve experienced if you have. The thing about this exhibition is it gives you so many different facets and different perspective on a singular place, and visitors will come away with a broader appreciation for this place and its history — not just what they thought it was, but this much broader range and an understanding of how it changed in this 150-year period. 

Q. Why should people come see Coney Island?

René: Not only is the exhibition filled with really remarkable objects, it exemplifies one of those places in America that helps define America. Coney Island is quintessentially American. It has both a  mythic aspect and it has the reality of it, and I don’t know if you’d find a similar place anywhere else in the world. It has endured for so long — it’s like a magnet — and it has brought generations and generations back, so every generation seems to find something new.

Q. Anything you want to add about the exhibition?

René: I think it is an exhibition, especially for our audience that lives in the area, that can be experienced more than once. You’re perceptions will change with each viewing. There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance and incredible details. If you have the opportunity to come more than once you can really appreciate all of these subtleties.