Gallery Council: A Look Back

February 14, 1940. The Rochester newspapers were filled with the ominous events that would soon lead America into war. Closer to home, the winter’s worst snowstorm snarled traffic and closed schools. Yet for MAG, it was a very bright day indeed, as the Gallery’s Women’s Council held its first meeting.

Women's Council Tea circa 1955Like so much at the Gallery, the Council’s beginnings were inextricably linked with the Herdle family. The all-volunteer group was the brainchild of the Gallery’s director, Gertrude Herdle Moore, and both she and her sister, curator emeritus Isabel Herdle, were among the “founding mothers” present at that first meeting. Pictured at left: In 1955, director Moore (second from left) enjoys tea in the Fountain Council with fellow Council members.

“To look back on these years is to be grateful for Gertrude and Isabel, who set the highest goals for the Gallery,” said Marion Hawks, a Council member from the 1940s until her death in 2003. “They made volunteering rewarding for us all and gave it institutional stature.”

Three million and counting

The mission of the new organization was to raise funds and provide volunteers for some of the director’s most cherished outreach programs. (Some, such as scholarship aid for young Creative Workshop students, continue today.)

The Council’s first major fundraiser was a 1942 exhibition of the Thorne collection of miniature rooms (photo on facing page), first seen at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Some 19,000 people visited, netting the then-spectacular amount of $1,500.

Seven decades later, the group has raised some three million dollars for the Gallery, its collections and its programs. Over the years, the Council has raised money through galas ranging from April in Paris (1956) to the Tapestry Ball (1996), Art in Bloom, Just Jazz, Third Thursdays, and Collections and Cuisines.

For several decades starting in 1962, the biggest money-maker was the Gallery’s annual Clothesline Festival. Hundreds of volunteers each year were involved in food concessions, an activity the Council continues to this day. Other ongoing projects include the Council’s yearly Art and Treasures next-to-new sale, fall Fine Craft Show and Sale, and art tours at home and abroad.

Changing times

In the past two decades the organization has undergone significant changes. No longer the Women’s Council, it officially changed its name to the Gallery Council in 1994, three years after welcoming its first male members. Then in 2007 the Council held a series of focus groups moderated by a management consultant. The findings were used to identify goals for the future and develop a strategic plan, which with periodic updates continues to guide the Council.

Some things remain constant, however. Unlike many other volunteer organizations, the Council still requires that members contribute their time. But members also reap the rewards, notably a sense of commitment and a sense of belonging. And even though members are far more likely to work outside of the home, their numbers, at more than 300, have more than tripled since 1955.

Good company

“A company of self-found friends” is how Gallery Notes, the precursor to ARTiculate, described the group in 1940. The description still fits today. Gloria Horwitz, a member since the 1950s, calls the Gallery “a focal point of my life.” Jean DeHaven, who joined in the 1980s, writes that the Council has given her “good friends, diverse activities and interesting challenges—all in the guise of giving.” Mary Goldman Crowe, 2002–04 Council president, is grateful for “friendships that continue to deepen, both old and new.”

The greatest beneficiary, of course, is the Gallery. “No volunteer group has been more significant to our success than the Gallery Council,” says director emeritus Grant Holcomb. “This group’s dedication has helped make our institution a national leader in museum volunteerism.”

“What impresses me most about MAG is how well volunteers are treated, educated, supported and welcomed,” adds Sandra Koon, 2008–10 Council president. “It’s a credit to the entire staff that we’re considered an integral part of the museum.”

It’s a debt the Council has been quick to repay. One of the first things Laura Swett, 2000–02 Council president, instituted during her tenure was an annual reception for “the incredible MAG staff, in recognition of their dedication and service.” Together, the Gallery and the Gallery Council look forward to the next 75 years.