Gallery History

The Memorial Art Gallery—and How It Grew

Memorial Art Gallery construction 1913, 1926, 1968, 1987

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.

1913 New York Times article on Memorial Art Gallery opening

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.”

Construction of the Fountain Court, part of the 1926 addition to the Memorial Art GalleryBy 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.

TimelineVisit our interactive Timeline for a more in-depth view of MAG’s history, Rochester’s history, art and artists in Rochester, a family history of Gallery founder Emily Sibley Watson, and some history on the University of Rochester, as well.

<!–Other milestones during the Gallery’s first decades included:

  • membership reaches 1500 following first community-wide appeal (1926)
  • educational programming gets boost with addition of long-serving staff members Susan Eisenhart Schilling (1937) and Langdon Clay (1952)
  • first endowment for acquisitions, the Marion Stratton Gould Fund, allows Gallery to begin purchasing works for the collection (1938)
  • all-volunteer Woman’s Council (now Gallery Council) holds first meeting and begins fund-raising efforts (1940)
  • first formal class of volunteer docents completes training (1968)

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.

aerial view of the Memorial Art Gallery, 1996

The Gallery’s campus was transformed beginning in 2011 with the construction of the Centennial Sculpture Park, and Neighborhood of the Arts Poets Walk & Story Walk.

—portions of this text adapted from an article by Betsy Brayer in the May-June 1987 issue of Gallery Notes.