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Circus and the City: Exploring New York’s Love for the Denizens of the Big Top

by Larry Kellogg (10/16/12).

A Barnum & Bailey electric spectacular, advertising the circus at Madison Square Garden in 1910. (John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History)

New York City loves the circus and that love is reflected in a dazzling exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC. “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010” opened in September and continues through Feb. 3, 2013. Earlier this month I had an opportunity to see the exhibit while vacationing in New York.

More than 200 items from private and public collections were selected for display. I was particularly interested because many of the objects came from The Circus Museums at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., a museum I have worked with for more than 40 years. Several of the items from the Ringling Circus Museums are from the Tibbals Collection.

Other museums that provided artifacts are:

New York Historical Society in New York City
International Center of Photography in New York City
Somers Historical Society in Somers, New York
Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis.
Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn.
Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt.
Hertzberg Circus Collection of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas
Syracuse University Library in Syracuse, N.Y.
Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“Circus and the City” is displayed on three floors of the Bard Graduate Center Galleries and is divided into four categories: 1. The Early Years; 2. The American Circus Comes of Age; 3. The Golden Age; 4. Scenes from the 20th Century.

For their first appearance in New York City, Ringling Bros. printed this special poster. (From the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection, Sarasota, Fla.)

American clown and circus owner Dan Rice wore these striped pants in the 1860s. (From the Hertzberg Circus Collection of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas)

A complete costume worn by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown Felix Adler is on display. This is Felix’s hat. (From the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis.).

Two books have been published in conjunction with the exhibit and are a must for any serious circus collector. One is a catalogue of the show with an illustrated checklist of the objects in the exhibition. The other book published by Yale University Press is a group of essays by leading scholars about the history of the circus in America.

“Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010” is a 208-page hardback catalogue of the objects in the exhibit. It retails for $40.

“The American Circus” retails for $65. More than 450 pages are filled with essays and illustrations.

The Bard Graduate Center Gallery is located in New York City at 18 West 86th St., between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The admission fee is $7 general, $5 senior and for students (valid ID). Admission is free Thursday evenings after 5 p.m.

Some images used in this article are courtesy of The Bard Graduate Center.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.


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