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Rochester’s Ladies’ Art Exchange

ArtXchangeLoanEx_0-coverIn 1879, the same year that the Rochester Art Club was established, another art organization was born: the Ladies’ Art Exchange. Formed to elevate the artistic taste of Rochester and to provide scholarships for art classes for women who looked to artistic endeavors for their livelihood, the Art Exchange served as a marketplace for decorative arts as well as a philanthropic organization. An article in the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 2/16/1880 described the goals of the association as “to provide for the exhibition and sale of decorative art work of any description which shall be of sufficient excellence to be accepted and for training in artistic industries.”

The Art Exchange’s decorative art emphasis was influenced by Britain’s South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) as well as by the success of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition, the first official world’s fair in the United States, which included a Women’s Pavilion featuring decorative art. Similar initiatives had been instituted in New York as early as 1875, and later in Philadelphia and Dayton, Ohio. Rochester’s organization was long-lived and successful, in part because it supplemented its Rochester wares with high-quality items from around the country and sold materials internationally.

Early teachers included members of the Rochester Art Club: W.J. Lockhart gave instruction in watercolor and landscape painting; Frederick T. Vance in china painting; Johnson M. Mundy in sculpture; and Harvey Ellis in oil painting. Later John Z. Wood and James Hogarth Dennis also taught for the Exchange. In addition a Miss Kirby gave instruction in charcoal drawing and Miss Sage in crewel and Kensington embroidery. The Exchange’s classes were well-attended and early reports made a point of noting women who had been successful in finding remunerative work based upon their artistic efforts. These free classes continued until the Mechanics Institute opened, when the Art Exchange maintained only its classes in embroidery.

Many Rochester women artists were associated with the Art Exchange as well as the Art Club, including Libbie Dutcher, Annie Williams Howell, Agnes Jeffrey, Ada Howe Kent, Emma Lampert (later Emma Lampert Cooper, wife of Colin Campbell Cooper); and M. Louise Stowell. Stowell was also associated with the Mechanics Institute, which opened in 1885.

The Art Exchange took pride in fostering good taste. An article in the 5/3/1884 Union and Advertiser expressed gratitude “to the ladies of the Exchange for their efforts toward the abolition of the execrable Berlin worsted, tabby cats, feather flowers, cabbage roses in wax, weeping females, and equally lachrymose willows, which in the years gone by have made the homes of the people veritable chambers of horrors and a disgrace to the artistic reputation of the community.”

Emily Sibley. date unknown, photograph by J.H. Kent, Rochester, NY

Emily Sibley. date unknown, photograph by J.H. Kent, Rochester, NY

The large Board of Managers was largely composed of women from Rochester’s upper classes. Founded by Mrs. Samuel Hildreth, the early managers included: Mrs. Anderson, wife of the University of Rochester president Martin Brewer Anderson; Marie Atkinson, Emily Sibley Averell’s niece; Emily Sibley Averell (later Emily Sibley Watson, future founder of the Memorial Art Gallery); Mrs. James Cunningham, wife of the Cunningham Carriage manufacturer; Mrs. James Goold Cutler, wife of the Cutler Mail Chute manufacturer; Mrs. Granger A. Hollister, daughter of Western Union co-founder Don Alonzo Watson, and Emily Sibley Watson’s future sister-in-law; the artist Ada Howe Kent in later years of the Art Exchange’s activities; Mrs. William S. Kimball, wife of the tobacco manufacturer; Mrs. Gilman H. Perkins, Emily Sibley Averell’s niece; and Mrs. Daniel W. Powers, wife of the Rochester businessman who built the Powers Building, home of the Powers Art Gallery, and an important supporter of the Art Exchange.

Early charitable events included a promenade concert on October 15, 1880; a loan exhibition in October 1881 (view the catalogue); a holiday ball in November 1882; and a Dickens tea-party and a Mother Goose children’s’ party in November 1883. In 1886 and 1887, the Art Exchange held joint exhibitions with the Rochester Art Club.

Daniel Powers provided rooms for the Art Exchange in the upper floors of the Powers Building. He also supported the Art Exchange when its activities led to financial losses. In an 8/6/1887 article entitled “The Art Exchange to Live,” the Union and Advertiser reported that Powers purchased the Exchange’s entire backlog of unpurchased items to make up its debt, and then donated the items back to the Exchange. From this date the Exchange renamed itself the Rochester Art Exchange.

Never self-supporting, the Exchange benefitted from the work of its “Lady Managers” and the generosity of its patrons. Its 1896 report reminded its readers that “It is due to this exchange that many poor women are enabled to provide for themselves and others comforts which are foreign to the purposes of other charitable societies. Food, clothing and care are not the only comforts which call for the exercise of charity, but even in respect of these it would be better for the giver and the recipient if the opportunity of earning them should be afforded; in other words, if the subjects of such charities should be helped to help themselves.” The Art Exchange held sales through at least 1896, helping a generation of Rochester women.


Comment from Carlos
Time: September 27, 2015, 9:17 am

Great post. Is it possible that some of the articles, particularly the 5/3/84 Union & Advertiser, were written by A.W, Moore? He was working as a journalist then, and it sounds like something he’d say…

Comment from lharper
Time: September 28, 2015, 9:12 am

Carlos–the 5/3/84 article wasn’t signed, but I agree that it could have been written by Moore.

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