Memorial Art Gallery's next 100 years

Gallery leaders open up about challenges and opportunities for the twenty-first century



Photo provided by the Memorial Art Gallery
A bronze figurine from Creation Myth, a 2012 outdoor sculture installation by Tom Otterness. 

In 1913, Emily Sibley Watson gifted the University of Rochester with the Memorial Art Gallery, maintaining that it remain “a means alike of pleasure and of education for all the citizens of Rochester.” Watson, daughter of Western Union co-founder Hiram Sibley, paid for the construction of the Italian Renaissance building and donated it to the university in memory of her son, architect James G. Averell, who tragically died at twenty-six.

Today, the Memorial Art Gallery staff remain dedicated to her vision as it marks its 100th year and charts its path for the future.
“Thanks to the forethought of our early benefactors, the generosity of our patrons and the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers, it has been an extraordinary century of art for the people of Rochester,” says museum director Grant Holcomb.

“The collection will always be the collection. I don’t care who the director or who the curator is,” he continues, “but, if you have a cohesive gallery family that respects the core mission, that respects institution, and volunteers their time, talent, treasure—which they do—then we’re in pretty good shape.”

Despite facing the annual financial challenges that most cultural institutions must handle, the MAG has evolved into a community-centered arts institution with membership, annual attendance and volunteer participation that rank the highest per capita in the nation. Last year, the museum could boast 4,800 members and more than 245,000 visitors. Not confined to just preserving historical art works, the museum has become an epicenter of cultural activities. It’s a place to take an art class, attend a lecture, see a concert, go to brunch, practice yoga, get married, or simply browse the museum’s 12,000 piece collection which spans more than 5,000 years which includes paintings by Monet and Rembrandt.

“This is how museums are changing. It’s become a sort of social network,” says Holcomb. “Going forward, we ask: How do we extend outreach and how do we make it more accessible to the public?”

The Centennial Sculpture Park, set to open in May, opens the MAG’s next chapter. The goal is to make the museum less intimidating and more integrated with the Neighborhood of the Arts. The goal is to create an urban space where people could sit, play music, and walk the paths up to the gallery itself. So far, workers removed sections of the iron fence that surrounded the property and installed limestone walls, brick pathways, lampposts and curbs. Over the next few months, gardens will be planted and additional artwork will be installed.

“The good thing about being here so long for me is that I can now walk on the grounds and remember what it was like to have that fence up. It’s transformational change by taking down that fence. It did open it up,” says Holcomb. “It’s a different feeling.”

The sculpture park will extend more than a half acre at the northwest corner of University Avenue and South Goodman and coincides with the City of Rochester’s ArtWalk.  When completed, the park will include an amphitheater and a walkway through the museum’s campus.

“Our mission is to connect people with art, so the sculpture park, we felt, is a wonderful way and visible way to engage people and connect people to art, especially families,” says Joseph Carney, director of gallery advancement. The park also will help generate new revenue, which has and will be a critical strategy to help maintain its annual operating budget, says Holcomb. “Like all cultural organizations, we are looking for earned revenue streams, so one thing you’ll see is probably more events without compromising the mission, and that’s a tough thing to do.”

Outdoor space will be available to rent for special occasions. The new amphitheater will serve as a venue for community events. To secure funding for the next ten to fifteen years, the museum is engaged in a $18.4 million capital campaign to build the endowment, pay for the sculpture park, as well as complete renovation to the Helen H. Berkeley Gallery of Ancient Art and the newest exhibition in the Dorothy McBride Gill Discovery Center, Renaissance Remix: Art & Imagination in 16th century Europe. So far, individual donors have committed $13.1 million. This fall, museum officials are expected to launch the public portion of the campaign to raise the remaining money.

A central goal of the campaign is a $10 million endowment fund, income from which will be used by the museum to meet ongoing expenses, cover capital projects, or fund special programs.  According to Carney, “The $10 million is to raise money for various core missions of the museum that are going to enable us to grow and expand our educational and exhibition programs.”

Although the money will also help stabilize the annual budget, it’s a struggle to raise operating dollars—the unrestricted funds that balance the operating budget every year.

“We have to work hard every year. You got money going into endowment, but you have to be continually recruiting new members and new annual donors who are helping to balance the budget,” Carney says.

This mobile app provides patrons with information about the gallery's installations.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, the museum is reaching out to a younger audience, which it hadn’t been able to do in the past. “It has given us the opportunity to reach a whole different set of people, and with that comes the responsibility to alter our programming a little bit so when they come here we talk about art and why it’s meaningful to them,” says communications director Patti Giordano. Marjorie Searl, chief curator, adds, “Our goal is not to necessarily provide beautiful things for people with a lot of education, but to provide opportunities for people who may know nothing about art and come in and have a really worthwhile experience,” she said.

Mobile technology is helping to make that happen. The museum has launched the free iPhone app MAGart which explores selected objects in the collection from the Ancient World, Asia, and Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Users can search objects by culture, time period or title; get in-depth information about them; and follow pre-selected tours. A version for the Android platform is coming in spring. It will include additional objects from throughout the gallery and the new sculpture park. Searl explains, “We encourage people to have a deeper experience with the artwork to understand there is much more to understand, perceive and really appreciate. We are giving them a tool that will help them with that, which will help them learn more about the artist and artwork.”

In the future, Searl anticipates adding interactive artwork to the collection to further involve museum vistors. The challenge will be funding the hardware and software to support the art. It’s a challenge museums across America are facing, but the MAG staffers are confident they’ll find a way.


Maggie Fiala is a freelance writer based in Rochester.

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