Rochester Art Through The Ages: The Greatest Survey of Influential Rochester Artists Ever Exhibited (Part I)
"A Rochester Retrospective: Painting & Sculpture: 1880-1950"
I came across this catalog while visiting with my friend, Warren Phillips, recently. Warren is a deeply knowledgeable person on topics related to local art. He's a talker and when he talks I listen and I learn. When he handed the catalog to me he told me he had seen the exhibition and considered it the single most important factor in becoming a collector. Naturally, I was piqued. "1980. I don't recall this show. Where the hell was I?" I asked myself out loud. I was in college at the time and missed the show. To be honest, I'm not sure the 19 year old me would have appreciated the show or even visited. It wasn't until after college that I developed a greater appreciation for the arts. As soon as I picked up the dogeared third or fourth generation photocopy of the catalog I knew I had to take it home for a close reading. Once I had read it I knew I had to share it with you.
It was the greatest survey of influential Rochester artists ever presented to the public or so they intended. None have dared attempt a similar effort since. The exhibit would probably never have been imagined were it not for a local collector, Bruce W. Chambers. Approximately one quarter of the works on exhibit came from private collections. The remarkable size & scope of the exhibition would not have been possible without including work on loan from private individuals thereby demonstrating the essential role local art collectors play in preserving Rochester's story.
Sometime in 1976 Chambers and a small band of collectors (referred to as "lenders" in the catalog) began plotting and planning with staff at the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) to mount a massive retrospective featuring a survey of "important" Rochester artists from the period 1880 through 1950. It took them nearly four years to pull it all together. The exhibition opened on August 1, 1980 and ran for approximately seven weeks until September 21st.
"My aims were: to give exposure to the major artistic accomplishments of Rochester artists; to stimulate interest in Rochester's art history; and to provide a sense of the historical and cultural connections which form the context of the development of art in Rochester."
Brett Waller was Director of the MAG at the time of the exhibition. He described himself as "a newcomer" in his Foreword to the catalog and conceded "...no survey can hope to be complete or definitive..." He goes on later in the paragraph, "...Rochester long has been a city where art and artists have flourished." Flourished indeed.
Volunteers Gertrude Herdle Moore and Isabel C. Herdle had the monumental task of organizing the exhibition and co-writing the catalog's Introduction (which was a treat to read for this local art collector). They were identified as "Director Emeritus" and "Curator Emeritus" respectively having left the gallery before the exhibition was organized. There are sections, like the one in Waller's Foreword describing the Herdle family's many decades of contributions to the MAG, that remind one of passages from a Henry James' novel. This was clearly a effort that drew deeply from Rochester's arts and cultural society from that period.
Of the thirty-eight artists and more than 124 works that were exhibited in the show approximately twenty-five pieces were created by fewer than ten women.
The exhibition included (in alphabetical order)::
Below each artist's name in the catalog is a descriptive paragraph that comprises a sort of distilled curriculum vitae for each artist justifying their inclusion. As you would expect, each entry is also accompanied by a listing of works by that artist and the source of the work. Most of the work is credited to the MAG's own collection with a fair number of pieces on loan from what was then known as the "Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum." The Rochester Historical Society also contributed a number of pieces.
If I have any luck, Part II of this series will include information about the local collectors who helped organize the show as well as those who contributed work to the exhibition. I'm also hoping for some first hand accounts. I believe there are a number of people I can contact who were either close at hand to the exhibition (maybe they worked on it?) or who visited the exhibition. I know of one source who credits this exhibition with becoming an avid collector: my friend, Warren.
I hope you have as much fun pouring over the catalog it as I did!
*This artist was alive at the time of the show. I assume all have died over the intervening 38 years. I hope to identify the date of their passing in a future post.
Header image © Roy Sowers 1999
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