Hundreds of paintings at Memorial Art Gallery can be traced to one donation
05:00 AM, Oct 02, 2013
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MAGs 100-year gala
What: An evening honoring the 100th anniversary of the University of Rochesters Memorial Art Gallery.
Dinner: 5 p.m., Genesee Valley Club, 421 East Ave., Rochester.
Gala: 7:30 p.m., Festivities at the gallery, 500 University Ave., Rochester.
Dress: Black tie.
Cost: $350 per patron or $600 per benefactor for the dinner and the gala; $150 per person for the gala alone.
mag.rochester.edu/centennial/gala or (585) 276-8903.
To see more: Connoisseurs Around the World: Gifts of Art from MAGs Founding Family is an exhibit up through Jan. 19 that celebrates the legacy of Emily and James Sibley Watson.
The MAG commissioned five keepsake charms inspired by works from its holdings. The Centennial Charm Collection will debut at the 100th Year Gala on Saturday for $290. If theyre sold retail after the event, the charms will be $374. Gail Riggs the woman behind the Ms. Anthony handbag to support the Susan B. Anthony House Museum helped develop the idea for the charms and donated funds to underwrite them, along with Maureen Dobies and Victoria Cherry.
The women teamed with four metalworking students at Rochester Institute of Technology Taylor Edwards, Kima Enerson, Chelsea Fay and Yuxi Lu on the commission. The artists were students, but they had Tiffany scholarships, Clothesline Festival awards of merit, and recognition from international competitions under their belts.
As they stroll through the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester next Saturday night, guests at the institution’s 100th birthday gala might stop at a work by the artist Jacob Lawrence. Quite likely they’ll be drawn into the world of Summer Street Scene in Harlem, an urban tableau that “unlocks itself like a puzzle,” in the words of Marjorie Searl, the gallery’s chief curator.
The renowned painting brings pleasure to its viewers and prestige to the gallery. And the fact that it’s at the museum at all is a tribute to the power of giving.
The gallery itself owes its existence to a gift. Emily Sibley Watson got things going in 1913 with a donation of $1 million (equal to more than $23 million today) in memory of her son James Averell. Over the years, other donations in memory of departed parents, sisters, brothers and friends have allowed the MAG to maintain and acquire art and to add space.
One of the most significant gifts after Watson’s was by Hannah Durand Gould, who died in 1930. Her will established an art-purchase fund in memory of her daughter, who had died 40 years before.
Gould would seem to have lived a quiet but haunted life, marred by loss. But she invested wisely. Hundreds of paintings, including the Jacob Lawrence, hang on the MAG’s walls because of Gould’s gift. Without it, the gallery would be a very different place.
The story of the connection between philanthropist Gould and artist Lawrence, two very different people who never met, mirrors the story of the gallery itself. As it celebrates its centennial this year, the institution can look back on decades of growth fueled by generosity even as it looks ahead to an art world where inflation has changed the game for acquisitions.
Out of grief
Records indicate that Hannah Durand Gould was born in 1844 in Milwaukee. She married Samuel Gould of Boston in 1875. He died sometime later while they were living in Boston. Hannah and their daughter, Marion, eventually moved to Rochester, where tragedy would strike again.
“Christmas Day in 1890 was a sad one on Spring Street in Rochester,” Searl writes in an online history posted on the Democrat and Chronicle’s ArtDrop blog. “Marion Stratton Gould had breathed her last.”
A photograph of Marion shows a pretty girl with bangs. Most of the details of her life, including the cause of her death at age 13, have been lost to time. However, there are indications that she was talented in art and music.
Her mother was involved in the MAG from its beginning. She was a friend of George Herdle, the gallery’s first director, and served for a time on the museum’s board.
According to Magnum Opus, Elizabeth Brayer’s account of the gallery’s first 75 years, Gould was also a close friend of George Eastman’s mother in the 1890s. In George
Eastman, her biography of the founder of the Eastman Kodak Co., Brayer notes that there were rumors of an engagement between Eastman and Gould.
No wedding bells rang. Nonetheless, Gould invested in Eastman’s company, and when she died in 1930, she left the MAG a bequest. When it was passed on to the gallery in 1938 after the death of Gould’s sister, Jane Durand, it was valued at $365,000 the equivalent of nearly $6 million today.
The money became the Marion Stratton Gould Memorial Fund, with the income from its investment devoted to the purchase of art.
Previous to the establishment of the fund, the gallery’s collection had been enhanced mostly by the gift of actual paintings from the collections of prominent Rochesterians. Three generations of Emily Sibley Watson’s family led the way, and their contributions are now on display at the gallery in the exhibition, “Connoisseurs Around the Corner.”
But Hannah Gould’s bequest allowed the MAG to buy more art on its own. The first purchase, in 1938, was El Greco’s Apparition of the Virgin to St. Hyacinth. It was said to have cost between $30,000 and $40,000 a major sum at the time.
To date, the Gould fund has been used to buy more than 1,000 works of art. In addition to the Lawrence and El Greco, they include paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Thomas Hart Benton, Maurice Prendergast, George Bellows and the Canandaigua-born Arthur Dove.
“I think it fair to say that much of the breadth, depth and significance of the gallery’s renowned permanent collection is due to the Marion Stratton Gould fund for acquisitions,” says Grant Holcomb, the gallery’s director since 1985.
Out of Harlem
Jacob Lawrence, who died in 2000 at the age of 82, grew up in circumstances far less comfortable than those Hannah Gould enjoyed as a child.
Born in Atlantic City, N.J., Lawrence was the son of a railroad cook who deserted the family when he was young. According to his New York Times obituary, Lawrence and his two siblings were placed in foster homes. They later rejoined their mother and lived first in Philadelphia and then in Harlem.
Lawrence’s mother enrolled him in art classes, and he continued that study even after he dropped out of high school.
Along the way, he met some key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, African-Americans like himself. According to the Times
, they included the painter Aaron Douglas and writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.
By the mid-1940s, Lawrence achieved renown for his work, especially a series of paintings devoted to Frederick Douglass and another to Harriet Tubman. A traveling exhibition of those paintings came to the MAG in February 1991. Lawrence and his wife came, too, and he cheerfully gave talks to local schools.
“He stood up on a stage, just alone in front of middle school kids, and you could hear a pin drop,” Searl says of Lawrence, who also attended a gathering in his honor at the MAG that featured Garth Fagan Dance.
A little while after he was here, the MAG acquired the artist’s Summer Street Scene in Harlem. Searl and Holcomb had made the case for the 1948 painting to the gallery’s acquisitions committee. “It was an easy sell a terrific painting by an artist who had visited here,” Searl says.
The painting reflects Lawrence’s artistic mission. “I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced,” he once said, as reported in the New York Times. “The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene.”
His painting of a crowded Harlem street depicts the American scene with a twist, rendering the ordinary extraordinary. It mixes colors and angles, the people seemingly pieced together from geometric shapes.
Summer Street Scene is all action in the foreground. Seven boys, their faces in profile, play on a car. But in the right corner, a shaved-ice vendor the parts of his body not quite together is slumped, unaware of four young customers. In other parts of the painting, dressed-up men and women chat, pause, walk.
“The painting is both a strong visual statement as well as a vital social document, as it depicts the energy of New York City during the period of the Harlem Renaissance,” Holcomb says. “I cannot look at the painting without also remembering the Lawrences’ 1991 visit to Rochester. It reminds me of one of the most memorable events of my tenure as director.”
As a matter of policy, officials will not say how much the gallery paid for the Lawrence painting.
However, Searl does say that the MAG could not afford Summer Street Scene if it were for sale today, given the prices some of Lawrence’s paintings have commanded recently. Lawrence’sThe Builders, painted a year earlier than Summer Street Scene, went for $2.5 million in 2007, bought by a not-for-profit group that acquires art for the White House.
“We have to find the art that is of the highest quality that we can afford,” Searl says, noting that it’s important to be ahead of the market.
That’s exactly what happened with the Lawrence piece: By essentially having been smart shoppers, the MAG can exhibit a significant work it couldn’t afford today. And by continuing to attract gifts from benefactors, it can continue to grow.
Most recently, the newly installed 7-ton sculpture by Albert Paley was funded by primary contributions from Ann Mowris Mulligan, a longtime backer of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Cameros family, major contributors to the arts in Rochester.
Hannah Durand Gould’s generosity, meanwhile, continues to fund purchases, as well.
So light the candles, celebrate the first 100 years, and give thanks to the likes of Hannah Durand Gould, whose gift keeps on giving one painting at a time.