Museum of the City of New York to honor Music Legends in Advance of New ’80s Music Exhibit

The Museum of the City of New York has announced plans for a brand new exhibit that will feature an extensive look at the city’s music scene in the ’80s. New York, New Music: 1980-1986 will open on June 11 at the museum and promises to examine this transformative era through the lens of emerging pivotal music genres and the influence they played on New York’s broader cultural landscape.

The exhibit will be previewed at the museum’s upcoming Spring Gala on Wednesday, June 9 where LL Cool J, Cyndi Lauper and Kevin Liles will be honored with Gotham Icon Awards.

The reimagined version of the 2021 Spring Gala promises to safely create an intimate outdoor event with dinner and performances along with a preview of New York, New Music: 1980-1986. The exhibition highlights diverse musical artists—from Run DMC to the Talking Heads, from Madonna to John Zorn— to explore the broader music and cultural scene, including the innovative media outlets, venues, fashion, and visual arts centered in the city during that time. 

The early 1980s were a time of significant transition in New York, with the city facing crime, urban decay, and homelessness. And yet, despite those challenges, it was also a particularly fertile time for music and other creativity in New York City. The musical innovations of this time period are a great example of the resilience of the city and the importance of art and creativity as forces of transformation.

Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director and President, Museum of the City of New York.

This new exhibit will focus on certain performances and moments that occurred during this extremely fertile era of music in the city. “During the ’80s, there was a community-driven musical renaissance in New York City. It was an era of creativity and genre-defying performance that, in my mind, stands as one of the most influential in musical and cultural history,” says Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photography, Museum of the City of New York.

The 14 featured moments that the exhibit will showcase are:

KID CREOLE and the COCONUTS @ DANCETERIA (1980)

In 1980, Kid Creole and the Coconuts led a revue of nearly a dozen musicians to perform their danceable genre-bending music at Danceteria, appealing to the still-dancing disco denizens, die-hard New Wavers, and everyone in between. 

DNA and GRAY @ CBGB (MARCH 22, 1980)

The pairing of these two influential groups was emblematic of that pivotal moment in the downtown No Wave scene. 

TALKING HEADS @ CENTRAL PARK (AUGUST 27, 1980)

Five years after first taking the stage at CBGB (opening for the pioneering punk rock group the Ramones), the Talking Heads played a sold-out concert at Wollman Rink in Central Park. For the first time, the band expanded beyond the classic quartet of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, bringing in an array of musicians. 

FUNKY 4 + 1 @ SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (FEBRUARY 14, 1981)

Marking the very first time a hip-hop group performed live on national TV, Funky 4 + 1– including hip hop’s first female MC, Sha Rock–was invited to perform on SNL by that evening’s host and musical guest, Debbie Harry of Blondie. 

BEYOND WORDS @ MUDD CLUB (APRIL 9, 1981)

This graffiti art exhibition and performance by DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the Cold Crush Brothers, and the Fantastic Five helped propel a new era in New York’s new music. Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) curated the show along with the artist Futura 2000.   

NOISE FEST @ WHITE COLUMNS (JUNE 16–24, 1981)

In the early 1980s, an expansive cohort of musicians was still exploring the possibilities of “noise.” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore curated a lineup around the theme, and what was envisioned as a one-day program quickly snowballed into a nine-day watershed event. 

KONK vs LIQUID LIQUID @ TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK (AUGUST 9, 1981)

Liquid Liquid and Konk both formed in New York City in 1980, and they quickly developed reputations for their slightly off-kilter music, driven by groove-based, danceable funk rhythms. The friendly rivalry between the groups and the marketing genius around it turned this concert into a sensation. 

MADONNA @ DANCETERIA (DECEMBER 16, 1982)

An ambitious 24-year-old using just her first name took to the second-floor stage at Danceteria on December 16th, 1982 to publicly perform her own music for the first time. Madonna’s debut appearance, and the single for Sire Records, served as a springboard to fame; the release of her self-titled album quickly followed in 1983. 

NEXT WAVE FESTIVAL @ BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC (1982–83)

An important springboard for new music in the 1980s came from the venerable Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) second edition of its Next Wave series. The season-long festival featured an unprecedented number of artists, including Steve Reich, Glenn Branca; Laurie Anderson; Max Roach and the dance team of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, a milestone of innovation and interdisciplinary performance.  

KEITH HARING’S PARTY OF LIFE @ PARADISE GARAGE (MAY 16, 1984)

Artist Keith Haring’s (with DJ Larry Levan) first Party of Life, a birthday celebration that was a rapturous convergence of art, music, and performance, featured a star-studded guest list with performances by Madonna and John Sex.  

RUN-DMC and THE TREACHEROUS THREE @ GRAFFITI ROCK (JUNE 29, 1984)

History was made in June of 1984 when the first syndicated hip-hop TV show was recorded on a soundstage in Midtown Manhattan. The show featured groundbreaking acts, including Run-DMC’s performance of their hit single, “Sucker MCs,” as well as Kool Moe Dee and Special K, two MCs from the veteran trio The Treacherous Three. The MCs provided the show’s introduction, breaking down the elements of hip hop, including breakin’, DJing, and the verbal stylings of MCs, all on a graffiti-laden set.   

JOHN ZORN @ ROULETTE (OCTOBER 13, 1984)

One of avant-garde composer John Zorn’s most influential “game pieces” –genre-defying musical compositions designed for controlled improvisation– Cobra was presented at Roulette, the TriBeCa alternative art space.   

FORT APACHE BAND @ MICKELL’S (DECEMBER 31, 1985)

On New Year’s Eve 1985, the Bronx-based Fort Apache Band played multiple sets at Mikell’s, a jazz club on the corner of 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. The music that evening embodied the group’s animating project: to explore the creative intersection of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican musical traditions with jazz. 

ARTHUR RUSSELL @ EXPERIMENTAL INTERMEDIA FOUNDATION (SEPTEMBER 22, 1985)

A groundbreaking moment in the New York experimental music scene came in the fall of 1985, when Arthur Russell staged several performances at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in SoHo.    

Viewed together, these examples provide a sense of the innovation, energy, and cross-pollination of musical ideas that was happening across the city at the moment of openness and creativity. Visitors will also have the opportunity enjoy some of the quintessential moments in a retro-feeling suburban rec room-inspired space. The lounge installation features a mix of found footage, video art, and their own archival film of downtown musicians like the Dead Boys, Heartbreakers, and Bush Tetras; along with rare early MTV interviews with New York-based artists such as David Johansen, Madonna, and RUN DMC, and footage from “The Scott and Gary Show,” a Brooklyn-based public access program, including early performances by Beastie Boys, Butthole Surfers, and R Stevie Moore. 

The Spring Gala, which will offer a sneak peak of all this, is one of the largest annual fundraisers for the museum’s exhibitions, public programs, and education programs which serve over 50,000 students and teachers throughout the city’s five boroughs. After a challenging year for the entire arts and culture sector, the Spring Gala is also crucial for the Museum’s recovery, ensuring that New York’s stories can be told for generations to come. 

This year’s gala will fete GRAMMY award-winning rapper, actor, CEO & founder of Rock The Bells LL COOL J; mother, activist, award-winning songwriter and artist Cyndi Lauper; and Kevin Liles, CEO and co-founder of 300 Entertainment (and former president of Def Jam Records).

The Museum of the City of New York fosters understanding of the distinctive nature of urban life in the world’s most influential metropolis. It engages visitors by celebrating, documenting, and interpreting the city’s past, present, and future.

Cyndi LauperKevin LilesLL Cool JMuseum of City of New York