NHA To Spotlight Life And Work Of Tony Sarg In New Exhibit For Summer 2024

Nantucket Current •

Tony Sarg and his Sea Monster balloon on Nantucket, August 1937. Photograph by Pivirotto, P21725.

A new exhibit "Tony Sarg: Genius at Play" will go on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum during the summer of 2024 as the first comprehensive exhibition exploring the life, art, and adventures of Tony Sarg (1880-1942).

Known as the father of modern puppetry in North America and the originator of the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons, Sarg was an accomplished illustrator, animator, designer, and nimble entrepreneur who summered on, and took inspiration from, Nantucket for nearly 20 years.  The exhibit is organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in partnership with the Nantucket Historical Association.

“Tony Sarg was such an important figure in American culture, and his work, unbeknownst to many, still impacts our arts and entertainment today," said Niles Parker, the NHA's Gosnell Executive Director. "He was an especially popular character here on Nantucket and the NHA is proud to be the home for much of his collection. The idea for such a project began decades ago and we are grateful to the Norman Rockwell Museum and glad to be working with them, to bring this exciting exhibition to the island,."

On view from May 24 through December 30, "Genius at Play" features original artwork, illustrations, marionettes, animations, books, commercial products, archival photographs, and ephemera from Sarg’s life and career, including nearly 200 objects and images from the NHA’s extensive Tony Sarg collection. 

Tony Sarg’s Nantucket Sea Monster balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1937. Photographer unidentified, P21155.

"Highlighting Sarg’s tremendous talent and legacy within the fields of puppetry and illustration, the exhibition will also reveal how Nantucket’s historic sites and colorful characters came to inspire his work and the many ways that this influential artist gave back to the island he loved so much," the NHA announced on Wednesday.

The exhibition's themes will explore Sarg’s professional as well as his personal life, from his upbringing in Guatemala and military career in Germany, to his involvement in the artistic circles of London, New York, and Nantucket. These personal vignettes are joined by sections devoted to Sarg’s diverse professional pursuits, from illustration, puppetry, and animation to Macy’s parade balloons, commercial products, children’s books, and architectural projects.

The new exhibition at the Whaling Museum includes additional Nantucket stories and objects, presented in a way that taps into the artist’s sense of play with a colorful and immersive exhibition design. Exhibition videos and hands-on activities will enhance the visitor experience, as well as two publications including an exhibition catalog and a children’s anthology book.

Additional exhibitions at two of the NHA’s historic properties will expand upon the themes found in the Whaling Museum’s installation of Genius at Play. A collection of Tony Sarg books and illustrations will be featured in "Sarg as Storyteller" at the Research Library’s Whitney Gallery, while the Map Gallery at Hadwen House will host the exhibition "Eye Spy: Playful Pictorial Maps from Tony Sarg and Others."

The NHA will also be offering a slate of gallery activities and public programs to support the exhibition. At the Whaling Museum, a free lecture series will feature talks by scholars and artists, while puppet-making and a Tony Sarg story time will be offered regularly in the children’s Discovery Center. These will be joined by special community events, including a celebration commemorating Tony Sarg’s 1937 Nantucket Sea Monster hoax. Sarg’s creative talents will be further explored through several Decorative Arts workshops; with decoupage under glass, puzzle blocks, bandboxes, and panel lampshades.

Tony Sarg: Genius at Play is supported by generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

04 CROP ph8 34 3
Tony Sarg behind the scenes of his marionette stage, November 10, 1927. Photoprint Gravure Co., Inc., New York; PH8-34-3.
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