Memorial Art Gallery sees a century of progress

05:00 AM, Mar 24, 2013

Memorial Art Gallery's 100 years in Rochester, N.Y. on Saturday February 16 2013. (staff photographer)/

Written By Jim Memmott

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A century ago a movement was afoot. • The city’s population was 218,000 and rising. The area was home to industry, to education, to parks, to a new science museum. But a key item on the quality of life index was missing. The city needed an art museum. • And so it was that Emily Sibley Watson, daughter of the fabulously wealthy Hiram Sibley, the man who struck it rich in Rochester by investing in the telegraph, took out her checkbook and bankrolled the construction of the Memorial Art Gallery. The original building still stands on University Avenue in the city. •

But over the years the MAG has grown, adding wings, adding programs, adding patrons, adding art.

Special section: RocRoots: Explore Rochester’s rich history

Now it’s celebrating its 100th year with exhibits and parties and a new sculpture garden. • The centennial offers a time to look back and to look ahead — and a chance for Rochester to rediscover one of its gems.

The artist Kathryn Bevier of Pittsford remembers her first visit to the MAG in 1998 after she moved to Rochester with her husband and daughter.

I was truly amazed by the collection of art that is on exhibit and the care in which the art is displayed,” she says. “Each room was so distinctive from one time period to the next. There is so much variety there to see. We are truly fortunate to have a museum of this caliber in Rochester.”

Push for the arts

Rochester might not count the MAG as one of its blessings if Hiram Sibley had not made a fortune with the Western Union Company in the 19th century, if he and his daughter Emily Sibley Watson had not been interested in art, and if the son from her first marriage, James Averell, had not died young.

As local author Elizabeth Brayer details in Magnum Opus, her history of the MAG at age 75, the Rochester Art Club had needed a home throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s as it bounced from place to place for its exhibits.

Around that time, Watson was hoping to create a suitable memorial for Averell, an architect who died of typhoid fever in 1904 at age 26.

With the encouragement of Rush Rhees, the University of Rochester president, Watson agreed that an art gallery on what was then known as the university’s Prince Street campus would be a suitable way of honoring Averell’s memory. Watson covered the cost of the building, said then to have been $200,000, the equivalent of $4.75 million today.

The gesture reflected the mood of the time, says Marjorie Searl, the chief curator for the museum Watson created

An art museum was viewed as necessary for any progressive, civic-minded city,” she says.

That was then. This is now. It’s easy to imagine a progressive, civic-minded city without an art museum. After all, Picasso and O’Keefe and all the other greats can appear on a smartphone high-resolution screen with the tap of an app.

But the numbers at the MAG, which is in what is now the Neighborhood of the Arts, indicate that the real thing, the actual painting, the actual sculpture, continues to draw, proving what Grant Holcomb, the MAG’s director since 1985, calls the “primacy of the art” itself.

Nearly 240,000 people a year are coming through the gallery’s doors. That puts the MAG in the top 20 percent of national art museums. MAG membership is strong at 5,500. Moire than 1,000 volunteers help out, the highest per capita in the nation.

The museum’s events have also become part of the fabric of the city. Its annual M&T Bank Clothesline Festival each September is among the largest festivals of the year.

Money, money

Museums are not cheap to run. There are a lot of unglamorous, but essential concerns, such as maintaining the right temperature, the right light, to preserve and display the art. “Our utility costs are staggering,” Searl notes.

The museum is part of the University of Rochester, held in trust in accord with Watson’s wishes. The university supplies about 10 percent of the museum’s operating budget of $5.5 million. The rest of the budget comes from a mix of endowment income, membership contributions, government support, gifts and other sources. From time to time, the museum also sells pieces in its collection that are no longer considered essential. Similarly, the museum purchases art.

You’re always interpreting where the art world is heading,” Searl says. “You’re always looking to raise the quality of the collection.”

So, of course, are other museums, as well as private collectors. Despite a shaky economy, the competition for new and old art is stiff, given the buying power of collectors from China, Russia and the Middle East. Smaller museums like the MAG are sometimes on the outside looking in at auctions.

We may make fewer acquisitions and let our acquisition funds grow over several years in order to be able to acquire high quality work that may have a higher price tag,” Searl says. “As well, we continue to look for those pieces that are intrinsically beautiful or meaningful, but not necessarily by household names.”

More visitors and more benefactors are always welcome, and in a wide variety of ways, MAG officials stress that the gallery is open to all and that it is a vital part of the surrounding neighborhood and the city beyond.

The next steps

This year, the gallery will complete a Centennial Sculpture Garden that was made possible in part by a gift of $250,000 each from the family of Edward D. McDonald, a MAG patron and from the museum’s Gallery Council, a volunteer fund-raising group.

It’s really important that our community have access to seeing art, to the exhibitions, to the creative workshops that might children started in,” said Charlotte Herrera, of Webster, a past president of the Gallery Council, in explaining why she gives to the gallery. “I feel it’s a special institution. There are lots of other things that we have to address in the community, but the experiences that you can have in an art museum are different from the experiences you can have elsewhere.”

The Centennial Sculpture Garden, which will include works by local sculptures Albert Paley and Wendell Castle, is intended to energize the corner of University and South Goodman.

As part of the garden, there’s a new serpentine brick walkway leading to the main entrance. And most of the iron fence that bordered the gallery is gone.

It’s the most symbolic thing that has happened here,” Holcomb says. “It opens us up as a real intellectual and social partner with the Neighborhood of the Arts. It has helped create a real sense of community.”

The addition of the Sculpture Garden and the removal of the fence reflect the fact that change has been a constant at the MAG. A new wing was added in 1926. That was followed by an addition in 1968. Then, in 1986, MAG broke ground for its 12,000-foot entrance pavilion and indoor sculpture garden. Some galleries have been renovated recently, as well.

Given the 100th anniversary, the 2013 calendar at the MAG is filled with exhibits and events that take loving looks back at the gallery and at the collection.

There’s an exhibit that features art from the MAG by artists (including Picasso, Matisse and Whistler) whose works were included in the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show in New York City.

An exhibit entitled “It Came from the Vault” showcases rarely exhibited pieces from the MAG’s collection of more than 12,000 works of art. “Art Reflected: The Inspiration of 100 Years” features more than 40 creations by local artists inspired by pieces in the MAG’s collection.

Ongoing education

The MAG was founded as “an instrument of art instruction,” a place where students could view representative art from across the centuries rather.

Among the MAG’s treasures are a Chinese sculpture from the early 13th century, a Rembrandt portrait, three works by Claude Monet and one by Winslow Homer.

Notebooks in hand, students study these and other pieces. And the gallery’s educational staff reaches out to schools, participating in a variety of programs.

The other day, a partnership with third-grade students at The Dr. Walter Cooper Academy in the City School District culminated in a one-hour exhibit in the ballroom of the MAG’s Cutler Union Building.

The students, among them Asad Abdi and Mana Mohamud, both 8, had all done sketches of frogs. Poised and prepared, they stood by their framed pictures, ready to explain to all visitors what they had done.

This is my third sketch,” Mana said. “I was proud of myself.”

Older students have been busy as well, among them a group of Rochester Institute of Technology students. They’ve offered their perspectives on some of the collection through an augmented reality project that digitally enhances paintings.

Click on the Aurasma app, point a smartphone at The Printseller’s Window and suddenly a tightrope walker appears dancing across the line that holds the small portraits.

Point the phone at Jonas Lie’s Morning on the River, a painting that’s been at the gallery since the original show, and water ripples, cranes swing. Everything that’s old seems new again as the MAG moves into a new century of giving Rochester the art it needs.