Off the Wall: THNK 1994 Museum

Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen share a highlight from their collection of art and artifacts related to the 1994 figure-skating scandal surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

Installation view of Rebecca and Josh Greco’s cross-stitched portraits of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan at the THNK 1994 Museum, Brooklyn. Courtesy the artists and the THNK 1994 Museum, Brooklyn.

Who: Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen, Curators and Roommates

Where: THNK 1994 Museum (Tonya Harding Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum), located in the hallway of Harkins and Olen’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

What: These cross-stitched portraits depict Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, two figure skaters at the center of a media scandal leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. In January of 1994 Nancy Kerrigan was attacked while leaving a practice session at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (the qualifying event for the Olympics). An investigation showed almost immediately that Tonya Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly masterminded the attack. This story received nearly 24-hour coverage by the media as they debated whether or not Tonya knew about Jeff’s plan to injure Nancy before it happened. After intense training, Nancy recovered and was able to compete at the Olympics. The anticipation of seeing Nancy and Tonya together for the first time since the attack led to the highest ratings in Olympic broadcast history.

When: After watching Nanette Burstein’s documentary The Price of Gold on Netflix (it’s about Tonya and Nancy and it’s a must-see), we decided our unused, 25-foot hallway would be the perfect space for a museum dedicated to the 1994 Olympics. Initially we thought “museum” would be a fun name for what would essentially be a bunch of blown-up photos. We started a Kickstarter campaign and asked for $75 to go to the Duane Reade photo department. As more and more people heard about the project, it became clear from their responses that a museum unpacking the real story behind America’s most iconic sports scandal was something that everyone wanted. We received submissions of art and artifacts, like press passes and scoring sheets from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (where the attack took place), a diorama depicting Tonya Harding landing a triple-axel, and a sculpture of Nancy Kerrigan. These and many more deserved a proper display.

These cross-stitched works were made by Rebecca and Josh Greco of Aurora, Illinois. Like a lot of the artists whose work is on display, we haven’t met them in person, although we’re sure they’re cool. Josh drew the illustrations and Rebecca cross-stitched them. These were extra-special to us because Rebecca sent us pictures on Twitter and Instagram as they were slowly coming to life. You could see the shading of Nancy’s cheeks come in, then Tonya’s bold red lips. Rebecca kept on saying, “This is going to be the most glorious thing I’ve ever stitched.” When they came in the mail, it was maybe a week before the museum had its opening gala. At that point, we were exhausted, and the whole museum was starting to seem pretty insane. We remember having this moment of “Do we look so stupid?”, but then we opened Rebecca’s package and the portraits were stunning. It was an overwhelming feeling knowing that a total stranger had spent hours and hours crafting something with so much love and had sent it our way. It was thrilling that the story of Tonya and Nancy was able to bring us together and to create some very cool art!

Why: Considered by most visitors to be the Mona Lisa of the museum, they also highlight how much this story and the media hype that surrounded it represent something uniquely American. Tonya Harding was the embodiment of the American Dream. She came from an abusive home with very few resources to pay for training. Her talent was so undeniable that she was able to continue making strides in her figure-skating career despite the fact that she didn’t have the financial and emotional support that others had. Eventually she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. Tonya went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and was eventually stripped of all her titles after the 1994 scandal.

It’s important that we look back and consider how she was (mis)represented by the media. For example, in 1994, the media debate over Tonya’s involvement in planning the attack often left out the fact that she was in an abusive relationship with her husband. The camp, humor, and drama make it easy to forget the two very real people at the center of this infamous story, but we hope visitors have fun re-living the outrageous moments while also having a thoughtful conversation about Nancy and Tonya.