The Memorial Art Gallery and its Impact on Rochester Art
Rochester’s brand new fine arts museum, named the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG), opened in 1913, and its first director was George Herdle. From the very beginning, the museum was committed to art education. Each director of the museum after George Herdle continued to maintain this idea that the purpose of the museum was to use the works of art and resources of the museum to impact the public, rather than create an exclusive space. This is partly due to the fact that the MAG is unique in that it is one of few art museums around the country that legally exists as a department of a university, but was intended as a gift to the public. In order to stay true to this goal, there have been several measures taken throughout the gallery’s existence to maintain some degree of separation from the University of Rochester.
The first of these measures is the fact that the MAG has its own board of managers, and thus functions mostly as an independent institution. For the first 40 years of its existence, the MAG was located at the heart of the university complex between Prince Street and University Avenue, meaning students tended to wander in and out, and all of the art history classes for the university were housed in the museum. However, when the University of Rochester moved its campus to the outskirts of town along the Genesee River in 1955, the museum was kept at its original location. After all, the Memorial Art Gallery had been intended as a gift for the people of Rochester, and it was decided that easy access to the public was more important than keeping the museum on the main university campus. This added yet another degree of separation between the MAG and the university, allowing the museum to feel even more like it belonged to the public. To this day, the MAG is used by the university to a very limited capacity.
Since the very day it opened, the Memorial Art Gallery has been a well-loved and respected local institution, especially among artists. This gallery gave local artists not only the opportunity to view the art in the MAG’s ever-growing collection, but also provided the chance for local artists themselves to be featured in exhibitions. Its low admission prices and student discounts also made it accessible to many young art enthusiasts such as Peters himself, who visited the museum many times in his childhood to take inspiration from the art on display. Having a gallery with money, resources, and growing prestige in such proximity opened doors of opportunity for Rochester artists. The gallery was so successful that the building was expanded multiple times, starting in 1926. Most recently, a new entrance pavilion linked the gallery spaces with Cutler Union, which is the old student union from the University of Rochester’s Prince Street campus. This recent expansion provided more gallery space and educational studio space. Cutler Union became space for administrative offices and event spaces.
The MAG is one of few American art museums that was not only founded by local artists, but has also maintained a close relationship with the local artistic community that helped to found it. The museum puts over twenty temporary exhibitions on per year, and roughly half of these exhibits directly serve local artists. The largest of these temporary exhibitions is the Finger Lakes Exhibition, which was started under the Rochester Art Club in 1879 and has been held annually at the MAG since 1914. For a local artist from the Finger Lakes and Western New York region, winning first prize in this exhibit is a high honor that comes with great prestige. Another important exhibition that serves local artists is the Clothesline Exhibition, which was first held in 1957 and allowed local artists and craftsmen to hang their art on a literal clothesline that was strung through the gallery in order to display and sell their work. Now, it is called the Clothesline Art Festival, and takes place outside on the grounds of the Memorial Art Gallery. The festival draws artists from across the country to offer their work for purchase and also includes live entertainment, free art activities, as well as food trucks and vendors.
Beyond the importance of having a home for the local art scene, the Memorial Art Gallery’s largest goal and most important contribution to the community has always been the institution’s dedication to art education. The MAG has many school programs that encourage school visits and tours. The majority of these tours are run by volunteer docents, who are trained and must attend weekly meetings, but are allowed some amount of freedom over what they show in their tours. Beginning in 1926, and expanding during World War II, the MAG also has had programs which prepare loan materials to send to schools in order to continue with art education during periods of time when school trips to the museum have been difficult or impossible. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, MAG made several attempts to connect with local high schools to develop art history programs and curriculums after holding guest lectures in high schools had proved a success. However, the school system failed to support this high school program, so the MAG moved the resources allocated to this project towards a new community workshop.
Given that the Memorial Art Gallery was founded with the intention to be a gift to the Rochester community and provide resources for art education, the museum does several things to keep the museum easily accessible to anyone who may want to attend. Today, this includes many discounts to admission including half-price admission on Thursdays, price reduction for senior citizens, college students, and children, and free admission to a variety of groups including MAG members, children under five, students and staff of U of R, and active military personnel. The museum is reachable by local bus routes, and also has a free public parking lot. The gallery regularly holds a variety of events including public tours, organ concerts on their Italian Baroque Organ, events for children, and workshops for educators. Finally, there is a sculpture garden outside of MAG that is completely free of admission.