Reporting from New York — Even if you're a card-carrying Deadhead, your first response to the new exhibit of Grateful Dead history and memorabilia that opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society might be summed up in one word: Why?
FOR THE RECORD:
Grateful Dead: An article in the March 5 Calendar section about a Grateful Dead exhibition at the New York Historical Society attributed a quote to a woman identified as "Steele." The quote was from Christine Bunting, head of special collections and archives at UC Santa Cruz. —
Why, in an august building filled with busts and portraits of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton -- in New York's oldest museum, to be exact -- is there a room packed with posters from the Fillmore East, rock guitars, videos of kids lining up to buy concert tickets and tie-dyed T-shirts?
Sponsors of the colorful exhibit have no shortage of answers. And they were in a partying mood this week as they unveiled "The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society," a roomful of treasures drawn from the band's archive, which it has donated to UC Santa Cruz.
The exhibition, which runs through July 4, shows that if the Bay Area "was the birthplace and heart of the band, the East Coast was the energizing center," said Christine Bunting, head of special collections and archives at UC Santa Cruz. "The band's links to New York were strong. They played here 155 times."
As she spoke, museum crews were preparing for an opening-night party featuring Santa Cruz wines and a Grateful Dead tribute band. The gift shop, normally top heavy with books about the Founding Fathers and New York history, was selling Summer of Love pillows and umbrellas festooned with peace signs.
"We're very interested in documenting not just the story of the band but the history of counterculture movements," said Debra Schmidt Bach, who along with fellow Historical Society curator Nina Nazionale helped organize the exhibit. "The idea is to bring you back in time but also to show how vital and important that history is for us today."
Or, as an unidentified youth says in a video about the group's fans: "The Dead, got to be the best, man. Wherever the Dead are, you'll see the people."
A visit begins with a grainy, blown-up photo advertising a 1969 Dead show at the Fillmore East. Nearby, Dennis Larkins and Peter Barsotti's iconic poster for the band's 1980 concerts at Radio Music Hall -- featuring two Grateful Dead skeletons, Sam and Samantha -- is one of many original artworks. Another photo memorializes the band's concert at Columbia University in May 1968, when a student strike had shut down the campus.
The group's West Coast roots are, of course, central to any retelling of the Grateful Dead story, and the exhibit is packed with California memorabilia. Glass cases display heartfelt fan letters and bootleg merchandise (a "Boogie til you Barf" bag with the band's logo) plus 1965 photos of the group in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.
A handwritten notebook by renowned concert taper Dick Latvala states that a Dec. 30, 1978, Dead show at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion "is one of the finest audience recordings I know of." Internal documents show the evolution of the band's farsighted business practices, such as their decision to allow free taping and exchanges of live performances to build long-term fan loyalty.
This bond helped the band grow into a musical and merchandising powerhouse that quickly transcended its '60s trappings. Until leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the group formally disbanded, the Dead was one of the most successful touring bands in history. Three decades after the group began, its following included politicians and celebrities along with millions of other loyal fans.
The Dead archive overflows with materials documenting this odyssey, and UC Santa Cruz officials were eager to get some items out to the public now. But Steele said it will take a long time to catalog the collection, much of which is temporarily stored in a large warehouse.
"Eventually, we'll house the materials in a new room at the main library and -- as we've promised the band -- the collection will be digitized so anyone, academics and fans alike, can have access to it," she added.
Some might have expected a California museum to get first crack at these items. But the New-York Historical Society won the nod and, in a twist that might have brought a smile to Garcia's eye, you can thank Henry Kissinger for it.
The former U.S. secretary of state delivered a talk last year at the museum and made repeated references to the enduring importance of the 1960s, especially as a key to understanding American history.
Officials began exploring ideas for an exhibit about that decade and believed they had found a perfect fit when news broke about the Dead's archive at Santa Cruz. It also helped that a former board member, Emmanuel Stern, had donated personal items to the collection and suggested that a museum show about the Dead and the '60s be assembled.
"We're not just talking about something that happened a long time ago," said Nazionale, pointing to a display of responses from Dead fans, who were surveyed after they viewed simulcasts of the Radio City Music Hall concerts. "Imagine, reaching out and polling your fans in 1980! It's so ahead of its time."