The Art of the Muppets was a touring exhibit designed by Henson staffer Mari Kaestle, which made its debut at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center in New York City in 1979. The exhibit showcased Jim Henson's creations, featuring photos, puppets, and video footage, including a 25 minute highlight reel.
Due to the exhibition's success, a touring version was created. Starting at the San Diego Museum of Art, it toured nineteen cities, finishing the tour at the Salt Lake ART Center in Utah in December 1986.
The puppets on display included Kermit, Sam, Yorick, Harry and other characters from Henson's earliest series Sam and Friends; Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Camilla, Rowlf the Dog, Sweetums, Robin the Frog, Statler and Waldorf, Dr. Julius Strangepork and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show; Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Count von Count, Grover, Sherlock Hemlock, Roosevelt Franklin and some Anything Muppets from Sesame Street; King Ploobis, Scred, Peuta, Wisss, Vazh and The Mighty Favog from Saturday Night Live's "The Land of Gorch" sketches; characters from Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas; and the Nativity puppets from John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together.
Other highlights of the exhibition included a touch wall, set up for visitors to feel the actual materials that went into the construction of the characters, an audio tour with Kermit the Frog and a model showing how Kermit and Miss Piggy managed to ride bicycles in the productions.
A 2014 book, American Puppetry, describes the genesis of the exhibit: "There was initially considerable concern and much discussion as to the techniques that could be employed to guard against the puppets appearing lifeless in an exhibition. As these characters had already become quite beloved and believable, great care was taken through positioning and lighting to convey the impression that the characters were merely stopped temporarily, frozen in action, in order to meet their audience friends directly. A style of floor-to-ceiling glass case was chosen to allow full access and visibility for audiences of all ages, and theatrical lighting was an integral part of the presentation. Kids who were found repeatedly hugging the whole cases seemed to confirm the success of the efforts."
One syndicated article about the exhibit noted that Mari Kaestle, who helped develop the exhibit, had expressed initial concern that the characters would lack charm and warmth when displayed as inanimate objects, but was won over by the fact the show would feature their craftsmanship.
A book was released in conjunction with the tour, The Art of the Muppets.
After the success of the Art of the Muppets tour, an international touring show was created: Jim Henson's Muppets Monsters & Magic, which traveled to Germany, England, Canada and the US. The second tour ran from 1987 to 1995.
(Note: In September 1988, Jim Henson wrote in his diary: "Art of the Muppets opens at the Museum of The Moving Image in London." Henson was talking about the international tour, which at this stop was called The World of Jim Henson: Art & Animatronics. This error led Henson archivist Karen Falk to believe that The Art of the Muppets continued into 1989, with its last stop in London.)
- 1979 — Lincoln Center in New York City, New York
- December 9, 1979 to January 13, 1980 — The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California. The acting director of the museum, Steven Brezzo, was a "college friend of Jim Henson".
- July 19 to September 1, 1980 — Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois
- November 29, 1980 to February 10, 1981 — Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, California
- April 4 to May 17, 1981 — Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. A 13-foot-tall Kermit, suspended by wires outside the venue, was stolen in mid-April.
- June 27 to August 2, 1981 — de Young Museum Hall of Flowers in San Francisco, California
- September 11 to October 25, 1981 — Museum of Art in New Orleans, Louisiana
- September 11th to October 24th, 1982 — Detroit Institute Of Arts in Detroit, Michigan
- March 1st to April 22nd, 1984 — The Museum of Science in Miami, Florida
- November 21, 1984 to January 13, 1985 — San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas
- October 5, 1985 to January 5, 1986 — Children's Museum of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Indiana
- October 11 to December 1, 1986 — Salt Lake ART Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
- "Exhibitions and Collections of the Jim Henson Company", Leslee Asch, in American Puppetry: Collections, History and Performance, edited by Phyllis T. Dircks, 2014.
- Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) December 1, 1980
- Mark Barabak through UPI, "Muppets now art objects", The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), 7 December 1979, A-13. Contains the end date.
- Poster on the Jim Henson's Muppets Monsters & Magic page.]
- Jim's Red Book - 6/5/1979 – ‘Lincoln Center Library – Party exhibit of The Art of the Muppets (runs thru Aug.)’ (2013-06-05)
- "Coming Up in North County (Special Advertising Supplement)", The Los Angeles Times, 22 November 1979. Only notes "through January" for the end date.
- Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) June 8, 1980
- St. Cloud Times (Saint Cloud, Minnesota) October 3, 1980
- "Miss Piggy just has star quality", The San Bernardino County Sun, Dec. 1, 1980.
- "13-foot Kermit hops it", The Toronto Star, 19 April 1981, A1.
- "Entertainment Guide", The Toronto Star, 23 December 1982, B6; article also notes the exhibit was not included in the normal price of admission, but was a $2 up-sell.
- Adele Freedman, "It's a Muppet invasion: Kermit, Miss Piggy and friends take over the Science Centre", The Globe and Mail, 25 December 1982, E5. (Article only explicitly notes the end date, but was published the day before it opened.)
- "The Art of the Muppets", History of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.