History of the Campuses and Buildings of the University of Rochester
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Prince Street Campus Memorial Art Gallery

1913 Memorial Art Gallery building from old postcard

1996 Aerial View of the Memorial Art Gallery

| Memorial Art Gallery | History of Memorial Art Gallery |

The Memorial Art Gallery was donated by Emily Sibley Watson, daughter of industrialist Hiram Sibley, 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 gallery was dedicated on October 8, 1913.  The 1913 structure is the oldest one built and still owned by the University.

A new wing was added in 1926, doubling the original 14,000 square feet and adding a central Fountain Court, children’s museum and an auditorium.

A 1968 addition again doubled the Gallery’s space and moved the entrance to the rear.

The Vanden Brul pavilion was opened in May 1987 and linked the Gallery and Cutler Union, which housed MAG’s administrative offices and a restaurant.

1904 James G Averell (1877-1904) grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery

1927 Rochester, the making of a university, by Jesse Leonard Rosenberger, with an introduction by President Rush Rhees.
Page 293:  In April, 1912, Mrs. James Sibley Watson, of Rochester, daughter of Hiram Sibley, donor of Sibley Hall, announced her purpose to give to the university, as a memorial to her son, James G. Averell, a building to be used as an art gallery for the benefit of both the university and the city. The building was dedicated and opened in October, 1913. An extensive addition was completed in October, 1926, as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Sibley Watson, Mr. Watson being a son of D. A. Watson, a former donor to the university and partner of Hiram Sibley. The building, constructed mainly of Indiana limestone, is of the early Renaissance style of architecture. The administration of the Memorial Art Gallery, as it is called, is committed to a special board of directors, in order to attach to the gallery for its support representatives of various art interests in the city. Vacancies occurring in that board are to be filled by election by the executive committee of the university, on nomination by the board of directors of the art gallery. In 1914 the president’s commencement reception was held in the art gallery, beginning what became a custom.

1945 Emily Sibley Watson (1855-1945) grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery

1968 "Renaissance on Prince Street:  The New Memorial Art Gallery," by Margaret Bond, Rochester Review 31(1):3-9 (Fall 1968)

1977 History of the University of Rochester, by Arthur J. May (on-line version with footnotes)
Chapter 17, Sunshine and Shadow
On October 8, 1913, the Memorial Art Gallery on the Prince Street Campus was dedicated with simple but impressive ceremonies. Given by Mrs. James Sibley Watson, daughter of the donor of Sibley Library, it was an enduring memorial to her son, James G. Averell, a talented architect, who had died prematurely; not only was the Gallery an ornament to the Campus, it was a showplace of the city. While the University corporation was to act as custodian of "a people's art gallery on the grounds of a people's University," its affairs would be handled by an independent Board of Managers, representing the art interests of the whole community. Members would be appointed by University trustees from individuals nominated by the Board of Managers, and it was prescribed by Mrs. Watson that the donor, the University, the Rochester Art Club, and Mechanics Institute should always be represented on the Board. Expenses would be defrayed by income from Gallery membership primarily and from admission fees (abolished in 1920). 12
The Memorial Art Gallery represented the attainment of an objective cherished for decades by art lovers in Rochester. Not long after the founding of the Genesee village, short-lived galleries were opened and paintings and sculptures were shown in hotels or the City Hall. Several affluent Rochesterians, moreover, accumulated art collections of merit, and in the late nineteenth century campaigns permanent gallery were recurrently organized, though none succeeded. The spearhead of the gallery cause was the Rochester Art Club; created in 1875, which arranged exhibits nearly every year; competitive ambitions were quickened by the establishment of art galleries in Buffalo and Syracuse. Mrs. Watson, "a steadfast friend and patron" of the Art Club, made her benefaction in 1912, the year the City of Rochester celebrated its centennial. The veteran president of the Art Club, George L. Herdle, a creative artist and critic, was chosen director of the Gallery and at his death in 1922, his daughter and assistant, Gertrude Herdle Moore, 1918, assumed the directorship. Of Herdle, Rhees said that he was "the most even-minded, unselfish and courageous type of manhood I have known. " and a resolution by the University faculty echoed that judgment. 13
The site chosen for the Gallery, fronting on University Avenue, conformed to the general plan for the development of the campus. Designed by John A. Gade, nephew of Mrs. Watson and member of a New York City architectural firm, the structure was built under the supervision of the Rochester architect Claude Bragdon, Rhees, as usual, keeping a shrewd eye on the construction and expenditures. A dignified limestone building, the Gallery resembled the Malatestas chapel in Rimini, Italy, of which Averell had been fond. On the facade, groups in bas-relief symbolized painting and sculpture, architecture and music, and Raphael, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Leonardo da Vinci were commemorated in medallions. For the ceiling of the vestibule entrance, a Danish muralist, Frode Rambusch, painted splendid fresco, and directly ahead was placed a statue of "Memory" by William O. Partridge with a relief portrait on its base of Averell. On the main floor there were four bays for pictures and sculpture and the quarters of the director; an art library, small rooms for lectures and exhibits occupied the basement.
At the dedicatory ceremonies the principal address was delivered by Robert W. DeForest, then vice-president of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, who spoke on galleries and painting in the United States. In the evening undergraduates demonstrated their appreciation in a merry vocal serenade of the building. While the Gallery made a specialty of transient showings of art objects, the permanent collections were steadily enlarged, and community patronage of the institution, nourished by annual membership campaigns, increased year after year. From the beginning, the promotion of appreciation and understanding of art through exhibitions, lectures, and instruction made the Gallery the very center of the artistic life of the Flower City and its environs.
Thanks to the generosity of the Watson family, an extension to the Gallery in 1926 more than doubled the space; as well as increasing exhibition areas, library quarters were enlarged, and facilities to foster the interest of children in artistic enjoyment and creativity were substantially widened. Forty years later, the Gallery experience further much-needed expansion and the original structure, now over half a century old, underwent considerable renovation.

© 2021 Morris A. Pierce