Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment agency, is a well-oiled machine, capable of putting together complex live performances all around the world for millions of fans. But, to create The Book of HOV, a public exhibition chronicling Jay-Z’s musical legacy at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Roc Nation found itself with a unique challenge: how to build a sprawling exhibition inside a public library. An added wrinkle: they had to make sure it was designed in such a way that patrons could continue to use the library while the show was on view.
To accomplish this, Roc Nation brought on partners the company had collaborated with in the past, such as Bruce Rodgers’ Tribe Inc, which had produced 17 Super Bowls, 4 of them alongside Roc Nation, and Ian Schatzberg’s General Idea Agency (GIA), a brand design agency. Together, with the input of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Jay-Z’s art dealer, and many other experts and crews, The Book of HOV came together.
“It’s not a classic museum exhibition in a traditional museum context, obviously,” Schatzberg told ARTnews. “The ambition was to design a story about Brooklyn’s finest, within the context of one of Brooklyn’s great public institutions, while also augmenting and amplifying the sort of ethos and purpose of the public library, which was to be accessible to everybody.”
But because the library isn’t designed as an exhibition space to move people sequentially from room to room, Schatzberg and his team had to come up with an exhibition that didn’t need to be experienced chronologically. Instead, GIA focused on creating thematic chapters that could be viewed out of order, while reflecting on their context within the library.
“For example, with the young adult section and kids section, we were attentive to those audiences,” said Schatzberg. “How do we tell a story thinking about philanthropic efforts and public leadership to young people?”
Another moment responding to the library’s context involves the building’s facade, which looks like an open book, the entryway and doors suggesting its spine. That led to the idea of displaying Jay-Z’s lyrics on the facade. But to implement ideas like that takes a sophisticated team capable of complex engineering and construction. That was where Tribe Inc. came in.
One of the challenges was: how do we get exhibits inside? The doors are tight, the elevators are a bit small. And then for the facade, well, the structure is old, so you want to be respectful and not put in too much weight on the walls,” Rodgers told ARTnews. “Thinking about load capacities, people capacities, everything we did for a Super Bowl we applied coming into this, and that’s why it’s successful.”
Rodgers and his team were also dedicated to making these feats happen without getting in the way of the library’s functioning.
“Once we realized we were inside a free library, one of the most famous in the world, one of our main goals was to keep it open,” said Rodgers. “The only time the library was closed was for the reception. All the other hours that were spent there were when the library was closed, we were there every night for three weeks so we could let the library continue to be what it is.”
There were many aspects of this exhibition that were a surprise to Jay-Z, but perhaps the most shocking reveal of the night was Daniel Arsham’s Hov’s Hands (2023), a cast of Jay-Z’s arms and hands making the diamond triangle hand sign.
But how did Arsham get his hands on a scan of Jay-Z’s arms without his knowing?
“We had his jeweler reach out and say he was designing a special piece,” Desiree Perez, Roc Nation’s CEO, told ARTnews. “So we said, ‘OK, you have to go and get your hands scanned because if not it’s not going to come out right,’ and he agreed and we got it done in Paris, but he had no idea what it was for.”
Perez said he was stunned and humbled by the piece, and that he went the next day back to see it again. But the rest of the exhibition’s contents would have been more or less familiar to him, reels of film and stacks of cassette tapes, festival passes and platinum records. It was exactly this quotidian ephemera that Perez was most looking forward to sharing with the world.
“I started archiving Jay’s masters, his publishing, his samples, who he worked with just because of the times that we’re in with streaming,” said Perez. “It was incredible to see his writing from back when or the original titles of certain songs. So during that process, I said, wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a place where you could actually view and see these things?
That was at the end of 2019. Of course, things got a bit delayed thereafter, and this dream had to wait. But, in time, Perez and chief executive of the BPL Linda E. Johnson got in touch and agreed to have the exhibition at the library to be timed with Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary. It didn’t hurt that the BPL’s Central Library was Jay-Z’s public library growing up in the nearby Marcy Projects.
[The exhibit] is really a statement about who Jay is, and his influence, but more importantly his perseverance. And that he’s one of ours, right?” said Perez. He’s from New York, but you know he belongs to everyone. That’s just like the library.”
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