The museum was founded in 1913 by Emily Sibley Watson as a memorial to her son, architect James Averell. Given in trust to the University of Rochester, it is one of the few university-affiliated art museums in the country that also serves as a community art museum. MAG has played a central role in Rochester’s cultural life for more than 100 years.

Timelines of Gallery and Rochester History

In honor of the Memorial Art Gallery’s centennial, we offer five timelines exploring the stories of art & artists in the greater Rochester area from the first explorers and settlers to the present day. Given in trust to the University of Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery is one of the few university-affiliated art museums in the country that also serve as community art museums. Why that happened, and how the Gallery became Rochester’s fine art museum, is part of the history explored here.

The Memorial Art Gallery’s centennial year was presented by Lynne Lovejoy, with additional support from Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull, ESL Charitable Foundation and Nocon & Associates, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc.

Evolution of the Galleries

By four o’clock on October 8, 1913, every seat in the Memorial Art Gallery’s Hall of Casts had been taken as Rush Rhees, president of the University of Rochester and of the Gallery’s Board of Managers, rose to begin dedication ceremonies.

The Italian Renaissance style building, by the New York firm of Foster, Gade and Graham, represented the culmination of years of effort by local artists, collectors and philanthropists. It was Emily Sibley Watson, daughter of industrialist Hiram Sibley, who donated the building in memory of her architect son, James G. Averell, with the proviso that it be maintained as “a means alike of pleasure and of education for all the citizens of Rochester.” The appointment of George L. Herdle, painter and president of the Rochester Art Club, as the first director further underscored the Gallery’s ties with the community. Pictured: New York Times article on the new museum.

Following George Herdle’s untimely death in 1922, his daughter Gertrude, who had served as his education assistant, succeeded him for the next 40 years. She became the youngest member of the Association of Art Museum Directors and one of only three woman women directors in the country. Ten years later, her sister Isabel joined the Gallery after postgraduate training at the Fogg Museum and served as assistant director, also for 40 years. In large part through their efforts, the collection would grow from “five paintings, two plaster casts and a lappet of lace” to what an eminent art critic later called “the best balanced of any museum in the state outside of metropolitan New York City.”

By 1926, the Gallery had outgrown its original quarters. A new wing designed by McKim, Mead & White doubled the original 14,000 square feet and added such features as a central Fountain Court (construction photo at right), a children’s museum and an auditorium.

A 1968 addition, an International Modern structure by Waasdorp, Northrup and Kaelber, again doubled the Gallery’s space, while moving the entrance to the rear. It was designed to harmonize with the existing museum and the neo Gothic Cutler Union next door. Built as a women’s student union on UR’s original Prince Street campus, Cutler Union had been given to the Eastman School of Music in 1955, and its basement now housed the Gallery’s Creative Workshop, which had been offering art classes since the 1920s.

With the completion of a successful capital Campaign for the Eighties, the Gallery broke ground in 1986 for a third addition, which would include an award-winning 12,000-square-foot entrance pavilion and enclosed, skylit sculpture garden designed by Rochester architect Frank S. Grosso. The new building linked the Gallery and Cutler Union, which now housed MAG’s administrative offices and a restaurant.

Emily Sibley Watson: Founder

Emily Sibley was born in 1855 and educated in Rochester and abroad. A member of one of Rochester’s first families, she came by her love of art and her sense of community responsibility naturally. Although her father, Hiram Sibley, was best known as the founder of Western Union, he was also a philanthropist and an art collector.

During her long life, she was instrumental in founding not only the Gallery but also the Hochstein School of Music, named for her young protégé. Mrs. Watson gave the Gallery to the University of Rochester in memory of her son by her first marriage, James G. Averell, who died of typhus in 1904 at the age of twenty-six.

Mrs. Watson’s legacy has lived on through the involvement of her surviving heirs. In 1891, Emily married James Sibley Watson, son of her father’s former business partner. Their only child, James Sibley Watson, Jr., was also to become a driving force in the community and at the Gallery until his death in 1982. And his children, Michael Watson and Jeanne Quackenbush, continued to support the Gallery founded by their grandmother.

On May 10, 2017, MAG, George Eastman Museum and UR River Campus Libraries Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation department launched the Sibley Watson Digital Archive, a website dedicated to digitally reuniting materials about the family of Emily Sibley Watson that have been scattered in local and national repositories. The Archives pilot project documents two trips made by Emily & James Sibley Watson: their honeymoon to Spain and Morocco in 1891, and a trip down the Nile in 1892-1893.

George Leonard Herdle: First Art Director

George Herdle was born in Rochester and studied in Holland and Paris. Before 1913 he worked as a freelance artist and taught at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology). He exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the National Academy of Design, New York; and the New York Watercolor Society. He was President of the Rochester Art Club from 1902 until 1920.

George Herdle was named Acting Director of the Memorial Art Gallery in September 1913, and confirmed as Art Director by April 1914. Avidly interested in contemporary art, Herdle was friends with many prominent artists of his day and arranged a remarkable series of exhibitions during his tenure, beginning with the Gallery’s Inaugural exhibition, which “followed by a few months the legendary Armory Show in New York City, which introduced European modernism to the United States. MAG’s very first display featured art by contemporary American painters, including George Bellows, Winslow Homer, and George Inness.” Other exhibitions from Herdle’s tenure included one-man shows of works by James McNeill Whistler and George Bellows; group exhibitions of American modernist artists; the world premiere exhibition of Kodachrome color photography in 1914; an exhibition of Impressionist work from the Musée du Luxembourg in 1919, the 1920 Homelands Exhibition, and an early American exhibition of work by the Canadian Group of Seven.

Herdle died in 1922 after several years of serious illness. The Gallery’s Archives holds a collection of tender letters written to his family during his treatment at the Mayo Clinic during this period. After his death, a memorial exhibition of Herdle’s paintings was installed at the Gallery. His works are in the collections of the Memorial Art Gallery, the Strong Museum in Rochester, and the Jersey City Museum in New Jersey.

Gertrude Herdle Moore: Second Director

Born October 16, 1896, Mrs. Moore was the elder daughter of George L. Herdle, who became the first director of the Gallery when it was founded in 1913. She began working at the Gallery while attending the University of Rochester, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1918.

Upon her father’s untimely death in 1922, Mrs. Moore began her 40-year tenure as the museum’s second director. At 25 years old, she was the youngest museum director in the country, one of only three women in such positions. She was one of the first women to hold membership in the Association of Art Museum Directors and the first woman to receive an honorary master of arts degree from the University of Rochester.

Like her father before her, Mrs. Moore initially served not only as director but also as head of education and museum publicist. More importantly, she had sole responsibility during those early years for raising funds to help the Gallery thrive.

In facing the financial challenges, she became adept at encouraging gifts. She had inherited her father’s friendship with Mrs. Samuel Gould, whose daughter, Marion, had died at twelve. Out of that friendship, the Marion Stratton Gould Fund was created in 1938 and remains to this day the Gallery’s chief source of acquisition funds.

“Without purchasing funds,” Mrs. Moore once said, “there could be no consistent development of the collection. In making out a list of wished-for accessions, we just laughed when we added an Assyrian sculpture. Because of its rarity, we knew that this would be an impossible dream. But now we have one.”

With her sister, Isabel, as her chief curator, Mrs. Moore was responsible for transforming the infant Gallery into an important museum. On a shoestring budget with few major supporters, the sisters developed a collection spanning 5,000 years and representing diverse cultures.

Mrs. Moore determined early on that the Gallery should be for everyone. Under her leadership, the Gallery became a model for community participation with one of the highest memberships per capita in the country. She also introduced innovative programs for children and adults. An early champion of activities for schoolchildren, Mrs. Moore began holding story hours and handing out paper and crayons to engage young Gallery visitors. From these beginnings evolved such successful educational programs as the Creative Workshop.

Gertrude Herdle Moore retired as Gallery director in 1962. In 1986, she and her sister Isabel Herdle were honored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce with the Culture and Arts Civic Award. In 1990 they received a special citation for their contributions from Arts for Greater Rochester.

Isabel C. Herdle: Assistant Director for Exhibitions

Born in Rochester on June 5, 1905, Isabel was the younger daughter of George L. Herdle, the Gallery’s first director, and Elizabeth Bachman Herdle. When the new museum was dedicated in 1913, older sister Gertrude was on hand. But Isabel, suffering from a bad case of poison ivy, was not. According to MAG historian Betsy Brayer, her parents worried that she would not sit still. It was one of the only times Isabel would not be present for a Gallery milestone.

In 1932, Isabel joined her sister as assistant director in charge of exhibitions, programs and collections. She also would serve 40 years, retiring in 1972 as associate director and curator. There could be no accusations of nepotism. Isabel’s academic credentials were impeccable. A 1927 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Rochester, she went on to receive a masters degree in arts from Radcliffe College at Harvard University. While at Radcliffe she studied at the Fogg Art Museum in Paul Sachs’ Museum Course. Through Sachs’ recommendation, she began her museum career in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor before coming to MAG in 1932. Later she studied at the Courtauld Institute in London.

Together, the Herdle sisters were responsible for transforming the infant Gallery into an important museum. On a shoestring budget with few major supporters, they developed a collection spanning 50 centuries and representing diverse cultures. Fully half of MAG’s 11,000 works were acquired on their watch. They initiated cherished programs, often running them single-handedly. And they presided over the founding in 1940 of the Women’s Council (now the Gallery Council), an all-volunteer organization that has raised more than $2 million for MAG.

For their efforts, Gertrude and Isabel were honored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce with the 1986 Culture and Arts Civic Award. In 1990 they received a special citation from the Rochester Arts & Cultural Council. and they were honored, along with their late father, in December 1983, when a plaque recognizing the family’s contributions was unveiled in the Gallery’s Fountain Court.