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At the Crossroads of Desire A Times Square Centennial 100th Anniversary Historical Exhibition

Exhibition at the AXA Gallery (787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street),
Curated by Max Page, Associate Professor of Architecture and History University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Dates: December 10th, 2004 - March 26th, 2005

This fascinating historical exhibition at the AXA Gallery (787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street), celebrating the centennial of Times Square, traced the area's profound effect on the evolution of American theatre, marketing, architecture, slang, sex, journalism and more. A gala opening was held on the evening of December 9th, 2004, and the exhibit was open to the public from December 10th - March 26th, 2005.

This unique exhibition, celebrating the centennial of Times Square, will show that in the area centered on the famous "bowtie" where Broadway and Seventh Avenue cross, much of what makes up modern American culture has been invented and reinvented, tested, exploited, and displayed.

Many of these "inventions" are familiar to all of us - modern theater as well as musicals, vaudeville, and burlesque; the big movie openings, the annual descent of the famous New Year's Eve ball, neon and electronic advertising signs. But this exhibition will go much further - revealing how Times Square has been at the cutting edge of modern architecture (bringing, in essence, European modernism to America in the 1920s), the development of American slang (the product of the merging of immigrants in the textile industry, rodeos in the old Madison Square Garden, theater impresarios, and reporters recording it all); and modern journalism. Times Square also came to symbolize the worst in urban decline in the 1960s and 1970s, even as now it has come to symbolize the rebirth of urban America. Throughout the century, Times Square has been one of the most intensively bought, sold, and developed plots of land in the world. In the process, it has pioneered new forms of real estate speculation. And in recent years, with the "renovation" of Times Square, we have seen some of the most far-reaching governmental urban renewal efforts of the last quarter century. Times Square pioneered the public-private partnerships that have rejuvenated -- or sold out, depending on your point of view - American cities. Perhaps most influentially, Times Square has served as a stage set for the transformation of American notions of morality, of sex, of gender roles, and the nature of public display. Indeed, it is not too much to say that while Fifth Avenue and Herald Square may have dominated the worlds of shopping, it is Times Square that was the true land of desire. Times Square and its salesmen, dancers, actors, workers, and investors have profitably delivered what Americans desired, or would soon desire, for the past century. While Times Square, in its latest reinvention, has been radically changed, it is still manufacturing desire, now more overtly on a national and international scale.
The exhibition will be organized around several primary aspects of Times Square.

1. Omens and Prophecy: A Century of Building and Planning in Times Square

Historian Betsy Blackmar has written that real estate development occurs by "omens and prophecy." Although we now cannot imagine Times Square anywhere else, in fact, there was little to suggest that the place we know today would grow up out of a dusty area of horse stalls and exchanges. The exhibition will open by asking the simple question, "Why here?" Anchored with a computer-animated model of Times Square, this segment of the exhibition will look at the successive efforts to speculate in, plan, and renew the Square. We will also peek behind the facades of the Square, into the fantastical theaters, stage sets, and restaurants, to find some of the most exciting experiments in modern architecture and design. The exhibition will return to this theme at the end, suggesting some of the contemporary design issues and plans, and give visitors a chance to offer their own ideas on how to design the future of Times Square.

2. The Crowd

Times Square would be nothing without the millions who have coursed through it. In this section, we will explore how Times Square came to be a place - for many, "the" place -- of gathering for New Yorkers over the course of the century. From images and accounts of some of the great public gatherings - at the end of World War II, for example - to a look at the remarkable crowds that have mixed and merged here on a daily basis. The symbolic object for this section will be a "language funnel" designed to sound out some of the national slang produced out of the mix of people and activities in Times Square. Times Square and its crowds literally transformed the very building blocks of communication - our everyday words.

This section will also suggest that smaller communities within New York - such as gay men - were able to establish meeting places in Times Square, while being denied that possibility in most of the rest of the city. The sense that, in Times Square, almost anything was allowed opened the door for New York's subcultures to find a home.

3. Entertaining America

Times Square has, since its very beginning, offered profitable diversions for New Yorkers of all classes. This section will examine the history of a specific site, the Winter Garden theater, showing its development from a horse exchange to legitimate theater to burlesque house and movie palace, and then back to a home of popular musicals. While many of us have some familiarity with this story -- the rise of Broadway theaters, their replacement by movie palaces, the decline and demolition of many in the 1970s, and their resurgence in recent years -- we will dig deeper into the roots of this story. For in the Square could be found a democracy of entertainment, from the "legitimate" theater along Broadway, to the rodeos and burlesque shows, the sex theaters and fantastical restaurants that once populated the area. In Times Square, the line between "high" and "low" entertainment rapidly dissolved - as it would, not coincidentally, in the rest of America.

4. Fantasy and Desire

As Frank Rich has written, it is impossible to think about Times Square without thinking about sex. Sex - on stage, screen, and street, real or just suggested - has been at the heart of Times Square throughout its first century. This section of the exhibit will explore how Times Square served as the testing ground for new moral attitudes and behavior. This was the place where immigrant women from the Bronx went, clad in their red dresses, to experience a certain risqué cosmopolitanism. This was also the place where New York's long history of prostitution reached its peak, and where an underground sex industry came out into the open, pointing toward the commercial proliferation of pornography in the latter quarter of the century.

5. Signs of the Times

Signs covered the two- and three-story buildings of Times Square from the earliest years of this century. But these were similar to signs throughout New York's word-and picture-filled streets. Over the course of the century, however, Times Square distinguished itself from every other business area of New York and became the outdoor laboratory for new ways to communicate and advertise in a vast metropolis. If the creation of a mass market has been one of the defining features of America in the 20th century, it owes much to Times Square and its brash and seductive signs. Visitors will enjoy the sight of some of the great signs of past and present - the Pepsi fountain, Wrigley's bubbling fish, the smoking Camel man. But they will also see that Times Square, simply put, invented modern commercial desire.

Weaving through the sections of the exhibition will be several other themes. First, through the use of numerous paintings and photographs, visitors will be reminded how "interpreting" Times Square has been a central preoccupation of America's artists. Second, we will take a special look at what is so often ignored: the vast workforce of men and women who make Times Square what it is. From stagehands to subway drivers, housekeepers and waiters, Times Square has been built on the daily exertions of thousands of people. This is a side of the Times Square story rarely told. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, each section will point outward, beyond New York, and show how Times Square's inventions can be found in every corner of the nation, and even the world.

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