In the mid-1980s, philanthropist Marylou Whitney and contractor Lewis A. Swyer developed an ambitious plan to create the first hall of fame and museum of dance in the United States. Steadfast patrons of the arts, their shared vision for a unique cultural institution dedicated exclusively to this vital art form was fully realized in 1987 in the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame.
Whitney and Swyer considered Saratoga Springs to be the ideal location for such a venture. It had been a center for dance since the 1966 opening of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and with it, New York City Ballet’s annual summer residency and an emerging modern dance festival at the Spa Little Theater. The availability of the Washington Bathhouse, a turn-of-the-century national historic landmark building located within walking distance of SPAC, strongly reinforced their idea. The Washington Baths was one of four bathhouses in the Saratoga Spa State Park that offered mechanotherapy and hydrotherapy treatments using the city’s effervescent mineral waters. Established in 1918 and in operation for nearly sixty years, it rivaled the great spas of Europe during its heyday. In 1984, with the support of SPAC, the newly incorporated Museum was awarded a twenty-year lease of the Washington Bathhouse and its ten-acre site by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, at the cost of one dollar per year.
The founding mission was that all forms of professional dance would be honored and that the Museum would be living, with dancers taking class and choreographers creating new work right on the property. A comprehensive, three-phase reconstruction and development plan to prepare the building was established. This involved the restoration and enhancement of the once-elegant Beaux Arts foyer and the construction of galleries and administrative offices. The creation of a theater for lectures and film screenings, a library, and a resource room were also part of the original plan, as was the construction of a separate building behind the Museum to house three state-of-the-art dance studios. Designed by the architectural firm, The Saratoga Associates, the award-winning renovation of the Washington Baths was partially completed for the Museum to open for a short preview season in the summer of 1986. The subsequent phases were ultimately realized. The Lewis A. Swyer Studios were built in 1992 and the Mr. and Mrs. Ronald A. Riggi Theater in 2014, thus completing the final phase of the founding plan.
The 1987 grand opening season saw the inauguration of the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame, created to honor innovators who have made an indelible contribution to American professional dance. Today, each new inductee is honored with an exhibition that season articulating his or her exemplary life and career in dance. Compelling, innovative exhibitions are at the heart of the Museum’s mission. Five permanent installations anchor the annual exhibition schedule and more than one hundred temporary exhibitions have been presented over the past three decades. The Museum’s tremendous roster of programming includes master classes, lecture-demonstrations, and performances led by some of the most influential dance artists of our time. Community collaborations are also an important aspect of the schedule and have inspired numerous events.
The National Museum of Dance continues its founding mission to celebrate, promote, and support all genres of dance, while looking firmly ahead to cultivate new and diverse audiences, ensuring the future of this magnificent and essential art form.