The Artistic and Cultural Legacy of Studio 54

Rose Hartman, Bethann Hardison, Daniela Morera, and Stephen Burrows at Studio 54, 1978.

© Rose Hartman
Rose Hartman, Bethann Hardison, Daniela Morera, and Stephen Burrows at Studio 54, 1978.
More than just a party spot, Studio 54 changed the cultural landscape of New York City

More than just a party spot, Studio 54 changed the cultural landscape of New York City

© The Estate of Richard Bernstein

Richard Bernstein, Mariel Hemingway, 1978.

“Probably the things that brought me the most pleasure while creating this exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic, was bringing pieces together that hadn’t been seen together.”

Matthew Yokobosky

For those who lived in New York City in the late 1970s, Studio 54 was the place to be. Around the world, its glamour captured the imagination of people passing through its doors and those who could only dream of it. Part performance and part nightclub, the converted theater space in midtown Manhattan pulsated with glitz and glamour. Studio 54 created a sense of escapism and luxury for those who made it past the velvet rope.

Opened in the spring of 1977 at the height of the Disco Era by club promoters Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, Studio 54 came to define a generation. Rubell and Schrager transformed the former opera house-turned-theater into a club that sought to challenge people's notions of what could happen within this type of space. With diverse avant-garde offerings and clientele, Studio 54 would influence many facets of life throughout New York City and beyond. “Studio,” as it became lovingly referred to by regulars, came to function as a cultural incubator that helped foster many subcultures.

“Studio 54 was multicultural; it didn’t matter what your socio-economic status was. Sexuality, race, gender, wealth was irrelevant—to get into Studio 54 you only had to look fabulous and once you got past those velvet ropes everyone was equal—fashion designers, models, and celebrities mingled freely with everyday people from all parts of the city,” said independent curator Scott Rollins.

© Dustin Pittman

Dustin Pittman, Two Dancers, 1977.

Studio 54 is where art, fashion, and theater all came together. It gave club-goers a sense of freedom and hope in a city wrought with crime, graffiti, racial and social tensions. It was a time of reckoning for people in a social movement that occurred right before the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, where free love still lived on the diamond-dusted dance floor of the club, and people from all walks of life congregated to forget their troubles.

The social space of Studio 54 played a huge role in queer history in the US. Openly gay celebrities like Andy Warhol, author Truman Capote, Elton John, fashion designer Halston, and the first Black male supermodel Sterling Saint Jacques frequented the club. Club co-owner Steve Rubell, who was also openly gay, wanted to have an inclusive space where gay, straight, trans, and people of all sexual identities could come together to comingle and express themselves. This general feeling reverberated through the walls of the club and helped in the development of gay and ballroom culture that was quickly emerging within the Black and Latino communities.

“Studio 54 was a very comfortable atmosphere for the emerging gay and queer culture in America. Disco in New York had its roots in gay discotheques like Le Jardin, the Flamingo, and the Tenth Floor, and it was from these underground, often members-only clubs, that the new dance music emerged. By the time Studio opened in April 1977, disco was about to take the country by storm, with the release of Saturday Night Fever and the success of the Village People and Sylvester, who topped the music charts. So, Studio, in addition to welcoming celebrities, business people and straight club-goers, also welcomed New York's gay and queer communities with open arms,” said Matthew Yokobosky, curator at the Brooklyn Museum.

The club’s attitude of inclusivity provided a safe haven for countless artists, musicians, designers, and regular people, who were able to be creative and explore identity and self-expression in bold new ways. Performance artist and Studio 54 regular Richard Gallo became an icon in his own right through his flamboyant sense of style and public artworks. Gallo, an openly queer performance artist, came into his own at Studio 54. The combination of his theater training and interest in fashion set him apart from other artists of the time. His distinct approach was different from his male and female counterparts such as Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Valie Export, Chris Burden, and Carolee Schneeman. Gallo had his own agenda, and through his queer identity and aesthetics, his performances brought something new to this emerging art form.

Blurring the line between theater and performance, Gallo became well known for his provocative costumes worn in everyday life and as part of the many of the street performances he staged around New York City. Studio 54 offered him a space where his glamorous looks could be appreciated.

“He wasn’t role-playing at Studio 54. He was always doing the same performance: being himself. He was never out of character because he was the character. He wore the same clothes on stage, on the street, and in private. He might be making breakfast alone in his apartment dressed in the same spectacular outfit he wore the night before at Studio 54. He never stopped performing. He was always ‘on’,” said Rollins.

Fiorucci Dancers, April 26, 1977.
© 2019 Allan Tannenbaum

Allan Tannenbaum, Fiorucci Dancers, April 26, 1977.

Now everybody can get into Studio 54, circa 1980.
© Gordon Munro

Gordon Munro and Peter Rogers for Studio 54, Now everybody can get into Studio 54, circa 1980.

Pat Cleveland on the dance floor during Halston's disco bash at Studio 54, 1977.
Guy Marineau / WWD / Shutterstock

Guy Marineau, Pat Cleveland on the dance floor during Halston's disco bash at Studio 54, 1977.

Dance Floor at Studio 54, 1977.
© Adam Scull/ PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, Dance Floor at Studio 54, 1977.

Bar at Studio 54, 1977.
© Adam Scull/ PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, Bar at Studio 54, 1977.

Diana Ross, New Year's Eve, 1979.
© Dustin Pittman

Dustin Pittman, Diana Ross, New Year's Eve, 1979.

Richard Gallo, 1979.
© Dustin Pittman

Dustin Pittman, Richard Gallo, 1979. 

Steve Rubell and Carmen d'Alessio in Norma Kamali coats, 1977.
© Dustin Pittman

Dustin Pittman, Steve Rubell and Carmen d'Alessio in Norma Kamali coats, 1977.

Steve Rubell, Giorgio de Sant'Angelo, and guest, Studio 54, 1978.
© Rose Hartman

Rose Hartman, Steve Rubell, Giorgio de Sant'Angelo, and guest, Studio 54, 1978.

Dance Floor Renovation, 1981.
© Adam Scull/ PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, Dance Floor Renovation, 1981.

Steve Rubell and Tom Snyder, September 21, 1978.
© Adam Scull/ PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, Steve Rubell and Tom Snyder, September 21, 1978.

Liza Minnelli and Halston, 1978.
© Adam Scull/ PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, Liza Minnelli and Halston, 1978.

Brooke Shields and Mariel Hemingway, 1977.
© Adam Scull/PHOTOlink.net

Adam Scull, BrookeShields and Mariel Hemingway, 1977.

Karen Bjornson at Studio 54, 1978.
© Anton Perich

Anton Perich, Karen Bjornson at Studio 54, 1978. 

Alvin Ailey performance, opening night of Studio 54, April 26, 1977.
Courtesy of Paul and Devon Caranicas. © The Estate and Archive of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos

Juan Ramos, Alvin Ailey performance, opening night of Studio 54, April 26, 1977. 

Christine Damos dressing sheet and measurements with color rendering, 1977.
© The Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos

Antonio Lopez, Christine Damos dressing sheet and measurements with color rendering, 1977. 

Steve Rubell, 1979.
© The Estate of Richard Bernstein

Richard Bernstein, Steve Rubell, 1979.

Fashion Maker's Show, Jerry Hall, May 23, 1978.
© 2019 Allan Tannenbaum

Allan Tannenbaum, Fashion Maker's Show, Jerry Hall, May 23, 1978.

Red Balloons, 1979.
© Dustin Pittman

Dustin Pittman, Red Balloons, 1979.

In the late 1970s, during the height of Studio 54, Gallo made a transition from guerilla-style street performances to focusing on clubs and fashion shows. Exploring this hybrid, Gallo wanted to see how fashion and art could push one another within these spaces. During this time he also began working with the designers Ronald Kolodziej and Phillip Haight, who helped conceptualize and construct the outfits he wore at Studio 54. Rollins noted that through this creative partnership Gallo was able to traverse avant-garde fashion and performance art.

“Studio 54 was the perfect environment for him because it combined all of these theatrical elements in a social setting. The dance floor was stage-like by design except there was no barrier between the audience and the actors so in that sense it was similar to the streets,” said Rollins.

Gallo was far ahead of his time and helped to bridge the gap between performance art and fashion with his one of a kind looks. Studio 54 became a hotbed for models and designers such as Larry LeGaspi, Rick Owens and others. Fashion would become something that would define the club and its overall aesthetics. Studio 54 and fashion have become synonymous, with its bodysuits, slip dresses with strategic slits, and dramatic patterned fabrics.

“Richard Gallo was one of the ‘fantastics’ who regularly went to Studio 54. Collaborating with the fashion designers Phillip Haight and Ronald Kolodzie (who also designed Studio's skimpy busboy uniforms), he fashioned himself as a living work of sculpture, and often ‘posed’ on the dance floor, holding his arm up and twinking either a metal butter knife or one sequined glove under the light—some say that he inspired another Studio regular, Michael Jackson,” said Yokobosky.

The Brooklyn Museum's latest exhibit, Studio 54: Magic Night attempts to give viewers a peek into the night club's glory days from a fresh perspective. Featuring over 600 objects from 85 lenders, the exhibition is a treasure trove of costumes, photographs, drawings, video installations, and more. This latest show captures the overall glamour of Studio 54, as well as the legacy it left behind.

The exhibition offers a play by play of the birth of the club and its thirty-three-month reign while examining it against the backdrop of contemporaneous New York City. It considers the larger sense of political unrest that New York was experiencing, relating to Nixon’s resignation, the end of the Vietnam War, as well the growing Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and LGBTQ movements. In an attempt to break free of this uncertain time, many people began to experiment with music, clothing, drugs, and art, ultimately laying the cultural groundwork for the zeitgeist that would be Studio 54.

“I think that [Studio 54] is in the air because people are a little bit nostalgic about the late ‘70s and the kind of freedom that they see expressed in the photographs and images as well as the clothing.” Matthew Yokobosky

“I think that [Studio 54] is in the air because people are a little bit nostalgic about the late ‘70s and the kind of freedom that they see expressed in the photographs and images as well as the clothing,” said Yokobosky.

The exhibition examines these feelings of nostalgia and freedom, while also giving viewers a backstage pass into a world that was inaccessible to those who couldn’t get past the velvet rope. Within the exhibit itself, museum-goers can see one-of-a-kind items like Gallo’s costumes. In one image of Gallo, he wears a blue and red pantsuit and a large draped cape, topped off with a silver bowl that serves as a hat, gloves, a flashlight, and what looks like detachable leg warmers. The ingenious look appears to have been made out of moving blankets that have been transformed into a dapper and clever outfit.

This is one of many unexpected surprises to find in this show itself. A series of photographic installations that came as a result of Yokobosky working directly with private collectors and artists shows aspects of Studio 54 that have not been seen by a wider audience. These include digitized images from the collections of photographers and designers Roxanne Lowit, Ron Galela, and Rick Owens, among others. Through Yokobosky’s efforts, these images are available to the public for the first time, giving us an insider look previously hidden due to Studio 54’s strict photography policy, which aimed to protect the privacy of its famous clientele.

Visitors at Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Visitors at Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.
Jonathan Dorado

Installation view, Studio 54: Night Magic, Brooklyn Museum, March 13, 2020-July 5, 2020.

“I really loved bringing together Larry LeGaspi's clothes from the late 1970s that inspired Rick Owens' book Legaspi and his Fall 2019 collection, named Larry. LeGaspi was a regular at Studio 54, the designer of glam rock outfits worn by Labelle, KISS and Parliament Funkadelic at the time, and a touchstone for Rick Owens growing up. So, the exhibition gave me a chance to juxtapose LeGaspi's original clothes with Rick Owens’ collection that he based on Larry's designs,” said Yokobosky.

“Probably the things that brought me the most pleasure while creating this exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic, was bringing pieces together that hadn’t been seen together. For example, I designed a floor-to-ceiling wall installation of photographs and paintings by Richard Bernstein, many of which became covers for Interview Magazine. This design was based on photographs of Interview's tenth-anniversary party taken at Studio, where Ian had created a backdrop of every Interview cover taken until that time,” he added.

It is these surprising combinations of items, its impressive size, and the attention paid to the individuals who became essential to the story of Studio 54 that help to set this exhibition apart. Of course, the show also pays homage to many celebrities who partied there over the years, such as Stevie Wonder, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, and countless others. One gallery wall features an extensive list of parties and special events, fashion shows and more that occurred at Studio 54.

Even though the party ended years ago, the larger socio-cultural impact of Studio 54 has remained intact. Studio 54: Magic Night sheds light on a complex moment in New York City’s history while also considering how the arts and culture scene that would define an era simultaneously grew out of it. The exhibition places fashion and culture front and center and gives people like Gallo much overdue recognition. Studio 54 is alive and well in the Brooklyn Museum’s latest show and hopefully, all who experience it will feel like a star, if only for a little while.

The show is slated to stay open until July 5, however, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the museum has temporarily closed its doors until deemed safe for people to come back. This may also result in adjustments being made to the exhibit’s traveling schedule.

About the Author

Anni Irish

Anni Irish has published cultural criticism, articles, and essays in BOMB magazine, Brooklyn MagazineGoodHyperallergicMen’s Health, the Outline, Racked, SalonTeen VogueVice, and the Village Voice, among many others. She has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has guest lectured and participated in numerous conferences across the US. She holds a BFA from Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.

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