Controversies at MAG

The Memorial Art Gallery has not been immune to controversy. Here are a few stories from the Gallery’s archives…look for more in our Timeline of Art in Rochester – part of the Gallery’s centennial celebration.

1919: Furor over George Bellows exhibition

Murder of Edith Cavell by George BellowsOn December 16, 1919 the Gallery exhibited a solo show by George Bellows. The exhibit became a test for Gallery director George Herdle.

Included in the exhibition were three monumental scale paintings, based on Bellows’ War series of lithographs, which depicted events during the German occupation of Belgium during World War I. The paintings, Murder of Edith Cavell (now at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, MA, pictured), Return of the Useless and Massacre at Dinant, were disturbing to local war-weary sensibilities.

Former Mayor James G. Cutler wrote to Rush Rhees demanding that the 3 paintings be removed from the exhibition. Gertrude Herdle remembered that Rhees “came to our father and said, ‘I just really have one thing to ask of you. What is your opinion of Bellows as a painter?’ And my father said, ‘I think he’s one of the great figures of contemporary American art.’ And [Rhees] said, ‘That’s all I want to know.’ He said, ‘Just forget about this business. I’ll take care of the man.’ And he did.” (from Oral history interview with Gertrude Herdle Moore and Isabel Herdle, 1979 July 27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

Shortly thereafter James Sibley Watson nominated Cutler to fill a vacancy on the Board of Managers. However the minutes of June 12th, 1919 record “his inability to accept membership on the Board.”

1945: Hubbub about a Fish

Fish by Leon Salter“I never thought a dead fish would cause so much trouble,” said long-time MAG curator Isabel C. Herdle. The year was 1945, and the fish in question was really a painting by Leon Salter (known as Zoute). When it received the Jurors’ Award at that year’s Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition, it touched off a furor rarely equaled in Gallery history. “Every time I think of the fish in the Memorial Art Gallery,” wrote one irate citizen to the newspaper,” I dread the coming of Friday.” Emotions ran so high—and so many people flocked see the avant-garde shocker— that city policemen were called in to supplement the Gallery’s security staff. Unperturbed, MAG officials purchased the work (shown at left) for the Gallery’s collection. One editorial suggested that Rochesterians would not have been so shocked had they understood more about modern art, so later that year, Gertrude Herdle Moore and her sister mounted an exhibition, “The A.B.C.’s of Modern Art,” featuring works loaned from prominent museums, dealers and collectors, to educate the community.

1979: The Dinner Party

In 1979 the Gallery got in hot water not for showing controversial art work, but for not showing it. In 1979 the Gallery entered into negotiations with Judy Chicago to show her ground-breaking Dinner Party exhibition in Rochester beginning in December 1979. Archival records show that Gallery staff were enthusiastically planning the exhibition and programming when negotiations broke down between the Gallery and representatives of Ms. Chicago. Responding to a proposed contract revision, Acting Director Bruce Chambers cited greatly increased costs for the show, and contract language that would have allowed Chicago’s Through the Flower Foundation to control exhibition programming and fundraising as factors in the decision to cancel the exhibition. “No one in any decision-making position had problems with the content of the show,” he was quoted. The Gallery received many letters of disappointment, and some coverage in the feminist press suggesting that the Gallery canceled the show due to its content.

The Seattle Museum of Art had also cancelled the exhibition around the same time, resulting in the work being put into storage until a showing was organized in Houston in Spring of 1980. From reading the archival material, it seems likely that neither the Gallery nor Ms. Chicago’s representatives were able to hear the needs of the other. Ms. Chicago had established the Through the Flower Foundation to support the costs of the Dinner Party project, and needed to be able to fund-raise to support costs; at the same time, her representatives were probably not experienced in organizing a major traveling exhibition. On the Gallery’s side, an emphasis on maintaining control of interpretation and programming was not unusual in museums at this time, and the Gallery’s fiscally cautious Board was not likely to be willing to accept increasing installation costs with the optimistic reassurance that costs would be paid off by the high volume of traffic the exhibition would bring. Looking at the plans for programming, and the high quality of speakers who had been contacted, the entire Rochester community was the loser.

After its initial run at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 1979, the Dinner Party “went on a nine-year international tour sparked by grass-roots efforts to find exhibition venues for the piece” (quote from Brooklyn Museum of Art website). It was stored for much of the 1980’s and 1990’s before the Brooklyn Museum purchased the work and reinstalled it in 2002.