The 1870’s . . .
era of the high-wheeled bicycle . . Rutherford B. Hayes and his disputed presidential victory . . . Seward’s Folly and the Battle of Little Big Horn . . . the first Gallery of Fine Art. . . “grand tours” into art appreciation . . . and a time when it was a “must” to have one’s portrait painted by the very humble but exceedingly able painter Grove Gilbert.
During this period, and in the midst of this hint of a cultural explosion, a group of young artists in Rochester, NY felt the need to get together. They organized the Rochester Art Club in 1877. From trading their talents and experiences loosely, these artists were now dedicated to “mutual assistance in art study,” an aim which was later to be elaborated into “the cultivation and advancement of fine and industrial arts and promotion of social involvement of members.”
The founders were a varied group. James Hogarth Dennis was an Episcopal rector and able painter. Harvey Ellis was an outstanding architect, far ahead of his time. J. Gurnsey Mitchell was an internationally known sculptor. John Z. Wood was an engraver in wood and steel, as was James Somerville.
Others joined the group and soon the growing club elected its first officers; The Rev. J. H. Dennis, president; Emma Lampert, vice-president; W. F. Richenbacher, secretary and John Z. Wood, treasurer.
The club was formed in the Fall and before the year was out it had staged its first show in a nearby State Street photo studio. Annual shows became a custom and the show sites varied around the town, being held in such places as the Powers Hotel Parlors, The Rochester Savings Bank, the Genesee Valley Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Bevier Building, The Memorial Art Gallery and the Rundel Gallery of the Rochester Public Library.
In these shows, for which there was an admission charge, the members not only exhibited their own art, but also brought in works of other artists for display and sale. They more than covered expenses and sales were always good. However, in 1909 a show, staged in East High School in cooperation with the Board of Education, was open to the public without charge and attracted 10,000 viewers. Another highly successful exhibit was held in 1912 in a special building set up for the club at Exposition Park, where a record crowd outdrew the Annual Horse Show followers. The club’s exhibits became so popular that in the first 25 years of its operation it is said that three million dollars in paintings were shown.
From the start, the club provided work sessions for young and struggling artists. Club members donated services in handling classes, and brought in teachers hired from outside the membership. Miss Ida Taylor of Le Roy came to the city twice a week for classes in oil and charcoal. Dennis, Walker and Wood, with other members, contributed their talents in weekly lessons. Eventually the club dropped these classes after the founding of Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, now known as Rochester Institute of Technology.
When the Memorial Art Gallery was completed, its early support was assured through transfer to its records of the Rochester Art Club’s list of benefactors and friends who had given financial assistance through the years. These friends became the nucleus of an active group of gallery members, and Mr. George Herdle, president of RAC for 18 years, became the first director of the new Art Gallery. The Memorial Art Gallery ~ was completed through the generosity of Mrs. James Sibley Watson, long a faithful friend of the Rochester Art Club.
Rochester Art Club was incorporated March 7, 1882, with seven members being named trustees. One advantage of being a corporation is that the club may be K4′ named in a will. The late Margaret W. Strong generously bequeathed $5000 to the club in 1969. It is through such bequests that it may one day be possible to provide a clubhouse for meetings, continuous exhibitions, and workshop areas.