Today's Nantucket

“Tony Sarg: Genius at Play” Is the Nantucket Historical Association’s Main Exhibit for 2024

Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in partnership with the Nantucket Historical Association, Tony Sarg: Genius at Play will go on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum this summer season, 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 balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Sarg was an accomplished illustrator, animator, designer, and a nimble entrepreneur who summered on and took inspiration from Nantucket Island for nearly twenty years. 

“Tony Sarg was such an important figure in American culture, and his work, unbeknownst to many, still impacts our arts and entertainment today. 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,” says Niles Parker, Gosnell Executive Director.

On view in the Nantucket Whaling Museum from May 24 through December, 30, 2024, Genius at Play features Sarg’s original artwork, illustrations, marionettes, animations, books, commercial products, archival photographs, and ephemera from Tony Sarg’s dynamic life and career, including nearly two hundred objects and images from the NHA’s extensive Tony Sarg Collection. Highlighting Sarg’s tremendous talent and legacy within the fields of puppetry and illustration, the exhibition also reveals 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. 

Exhibition themes 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 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 expand upon themes found in the Whaling Museum’s installation of Genius at Play. A collection of Tony Sarg books and illustrations are featured in Sarg as Storyteller, at the Research Library’s Whitney Gallery, while the Map Gallery at Hadwen House hosts the exhibition Eye Spy: Playful Pictorial Maps from Tony Sarg and Others.

The NHA is offering a robust slate of gallery activities and public programs to support the exhibition. At the Whaling Museum, a free lecture series features 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 are joined by special community events, including a celebration commemorating Tony Sarg’s 1937 Nantucket Sea Monster hoax. Sarg’s creative talents are further explored through several Decorative Arts workshops; with decoupage under glass, puzzle blocks, bandboxes, and panel lampshades, being just a few offerings available to make Sarg-inspired projects.

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

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