Explore the art, photography, fashion, design, music and celebrities that transformed a New York City nightclub into a cultural phenomenon

How does a nightclub, open for less than three years, become the global epicentre of music, fashion and design? Opening December 26, 2020, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Studio 54: Night Magic transports visitors back in time to 1977 to explore the revolutionary creativity, expressive freedom and sexual liberation that transformed a New York City nightclub into a phenomenon. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, Studio 54: Night Magic explores a moment in time like no other. 

Featuring hundreds of objects including photographs, films, sketches and designer fashions, the exhibition traces the nightclub’s trailblazing aesthetics while situating it within the broader social and historical context of the period. Organized chronologically, visitors are led through the exhibition to the sounds of Disco music.  Curated by Matthew Yokobosky, Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture at the Brooklyn Museum in New York State, the installation at the AGO will be overseen by Julian Cox, Deputy Director and Chief Curator.

“Born out of the social and economic tensions of New York City in the late 1970s, the club was a lightning rod for creativity,” says Cox. “On any given night, fashion designers would mix with politicians and visual artists, while celebrities performed and took to the dancefloor with people from the suburbs. The impact of this creative explosion was undeniable and continues to define how we understand the visual culture of that period.”  

When Studio 54 opened on April 26, 1977, New York City was raw and on edge – the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and ongoing protests for Civil and LGBTQ rights revealed deep divisions and painful inequalities. This upheaval charged the city’s creative scene; cheap studio space and apartment rentals made the city an appealing location for many artists, musicians and designers. 

Seeking to build a grand nightclub empire, New Yorkers Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager purchased an old theatre in grungy midtown Manhattan and set to work immediately transforming the space into what would become the hub of New York City nightlife. Their innovative redesign leveraged the creativity of the artistic community around them, transforming the theatre stage into a dancefloor, installing a state-of the art sound system and bolstering the existing stage lights to accommodate new heights of spectacle. 

Blueprints, sketches and architectural models trace the hurried transformation of what was an abandoned CBS TV studio, introducing visitors to the nightclub’s many in house designers and artists including Richard Bernstein, fashion designer and illustrator Antonio Lopez, set-designer Richie Williamson, Tony Award-winning lighting designers Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz and Academy Award-winning set designer Tony Walton.

Rubell and Schrager were determined that no two nights would ever the same at Studio 54, and the set design, guests, music and themes changed daily. Fashion designers like Diane von Furstenberg, Halston, Norma Kamali and Yves Saint Laurent strove to create custom creations as glamorous and unique as each night. Studio 54: Night Magic features many conceptual sketches, and handcrafted garments to provide visitors with a glimpse into the glitz and glamour on display every night the club was open. 

On opening night, dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre took to the stage indoors, while crowds outside begged to be admitted. Inside, celebrities, fashion designers, artists, musicians, New Yorkers gay and straight, Black, White and Latino, all rubbed shoulders. Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Cher, Margaret Trudeau, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote were all regulars, and the media couldn’t get enough.  During this post-Watergate, pre-AIDS era, glamour danced to a disco beat, and for the 33 months it lasted, Studio 54 was the watchword for creative expression and no-holds-barred excitement.

Co-published by the Brooklyn Museum and Rizzoli Electa, the exhibition is accompanied by a 176 page hardcover catalogue.  Edited by Matthew Yokobosky, Studio 54: Night Magic will be available in store and online at shopago.ca for $54.00.  

Stay tuned for more details in the months ahead, and in the meantime, dust off those platform shoes. Admission to Studio 54: Night Magic and all AGO special exhibitions is always free for AGO MembersAGO Annual Pass holders and visitors 25 and under.

Studio 54: Night Magic is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and is curated by Matthew Yokobosky, Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture, Brooklyn Museum.

Presented in collaboration with Spotify, founding partner of the Studio 54 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.           

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.