The Memorial Art Gallery and its Impact on Rochester Art

The Memorial Art Gallery at its opening in 1913

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.[22]

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A tentative plan showing a possible expansion for the MAG in the 1960s. 

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.[23]

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A community member viewing a painting at the Memorial Art Gallery (1950s).

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.[24] 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.[25]