January 31, 2009

An Inadequate "Curtain Call"

Last week, I found myself with a couple of hours to spare between appointments and so I headed to one of my favorite places in the city: the exhibition gallery on the first floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The shows they mount there are catnip for theater lovers like me who can’t get enough of showbiz lore. Still, I hadn’t rushed to see the current exhibition, “Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance,” when it opened last November. And apparently I’m not the only one. The New York Times, which usually reviews the Library’s exhibits, seems to have skipped this one.

I don’t know why the Times snubbed the show but I dragged my feet about going because I hate ghettoizing of any kind. Why, I thought indignantly, should accomplished female costume, set and lighting designers be lumped together by gender instead of recognized right alongside their lauded male counterparts? But that, said a plaque at the beginning of the exhibit, is exactly the problem: “The multifaceted talents of women that translate into design are tragically absent from the histories of art and performance.” This show, declared its curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and Carrie Robbins, aims to remedy those past wrongs by documenting the work
of over 100 designing women.

These remarkable designers include pioneers like Caroline F. Siedle, the first woman recognized as a professional costume designer back around the turn of the last century; Aline Bernstein, the first to be admitted to the AFL’s Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers in the 1920s, and Lucinda Ballard, the recipient of the first Tony Award for design in 1947. But the show also celebrates the work of contemporary craftswomen like Sally Jacobs, wh
o created the seminal white box and trapeze swings for Peter Brook’s legendary 1971 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the prolific Anna Louizos, whose work includes the sets for Avenue Q, High Fidelity, Curtains, In the Heights and White Christmas; and the longtime lighting whiz Peggy Eisenhauer.

There are sketches and fabric swatches as well as full costumes, architectural drawings and small models of sets in addition to photos that show how it all fits together. It was fascinating to see and read about all of them. Or it would
have been if I could have concentrated on what I was seeing and reading. Instead, I had to fight to hear myself think over the continuous loops of two very loud and extremely annoying recordings that droned through the small space. The first, which lasted just under five minutes (I timed it) and then immediately repeated itself, served very little point, except to welcome visitors to the gallery. I would have preferred silent hospitality.

The second recording was m
ore informative. It offered interesting tidbits about some of the items on display. The problem here is that all of the costumes are jammed onto two platforms. Small numbers are placed in front of each one but the information about them is on a collective label in the middle of the platform and the recorded tour is so random that so you have to run from one spot to another if you want to see the details that are being explained.

Over the next couple of months, the Library, in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women, will be holding a series of
events showcasing the work of some of the pioneers and offering interviews with some of the designers working today (click here for more information about the dates and times). That should compensate a bit. Still it's a sad commentary that a show created to honor innovative designers who haven't gotten their proper due is perhaps the most poorly designed exhibit the Library has ever presented. The talented women whose works are on display here deserve a much better curtain call than they're getting.


Anonymous said...

thank-you. The work was fabulous, but the exhibition design did not do the work justice in any way.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

I love the exhibits at the NYPL. The Performing Arts Library is my home library since the Donnell closed. Fortunately, it affords me the opportunity to take in their exhibits everytime I have to go there. This is one of my favorite exhibits by far. I love all of those costumes!