Rochester’s imperiled heritage

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If the Rochester Historical Society doesn’t soon receive a large infusion of cash or donated space, or enter an agreement to collaborate or merge, more than 200,000 artifacts relating to Rochester’s past could be dispersed across the state forever.

Its coffers dwindling, RHS in early December announced it was furloughing two staff members and keeping one on substantially reduced hours. The society is deaccessioning artifacts through auctions and offering others as long-term loans to cultural institutions.

“At the time we decided to furlough staff we had approximately eight months of operating funds left,” says board president Carolyn Vacca. “Some monies are restricted and the reduction in staff has extended the time frame, so I cannot give you an exact accounting.”

Vacca says the board knew it needed to make plans for the collections while RHS still had funds.

“We’re at 8,000 square feet right now and that’s unsustainable, unless we were gifted a building,” Vacca says. “Our library (alone) takes up 2,500 square feet. Ideally, we’d like to keep that. We certainly don’t want to lose all of our artifacts, but they take up more space, so we have to become much more selective about what artifacts we keep.”

Among the society’s holdings are clothing worn by Susan B. Anthony, a lock of hair Frederick Douglass gave to family friend Sarah Blackall, and a table used for demonstrations by the Fox sisters, the founders of Spiritualism. RHS has nearly 500 paintings and hundreds of other artworks depicting local life or created here. More than 5,000 architectural drawings and plans focus on buildings in Rochester and other upstate communities.

Many artifacts come from local businesses—including R.T. French, Eastman Kodak and Sibley’s. There are thousands of photographs and books, plus Rochester Fire Department memorabilia and items from local soldiers in the Civil War and World Wars I and II.

Artifacts in the collection are central to the community’s stories relating to the 2020 bicentennial of Susan B. Anthony’s birth and the centennial of the national right to vote for women, as they were for the 2018 bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ birth.

The society’s six board members are Alinda Drury, Mary Kay Adams, Patrick Malgieri, Rich Calabrese, Tom Latta and Aaron Metras.

Calabrese says he jumped at the chance when asked to join the board last year. Local history and architecture are favorite pursuits.

“In our board room I sit right next to Susan B. Anthony’s dress. It’s right there nearby, and so is the Fox sisters’ table. Right there. It’s pretty freaking cool,” he says. “You keep looking at it. It’s really something, to sit among really that kind of greatness.

“This isn’t just a collection. It’s not only local, but it’s global artifacts. This is irreplaceable, less than one-of-a-kind stuff. It needs to be protected. It needs to be visible, too, in an environment that is attractive.”

When he joined the board, Calabrese was shocked to learn RHS had no security system. He and another board member wrote checks to buy cameras and security coverage for a year.

Now, with concerns over space, he is trying to find a suitable new home for RHS, preferably donated.

State involvement

The most important job of a chartered historical society with collections is to house and care for those items. The collections of RHS are kept in a former industrial building on Lincoln Avenue, favorable for its cheap rent but not conducive to visitor traffic or the storage of fragile materials. With only one staff member remaining on the payroll, RHS is barely keeping the lights on. Archivist and librarian William Keeler is available 10 hours a week to handle research requests. A board member comes into the office to collect phone messages and manages some of the paperwork, Vacca says.

Chartered by the state Board of Regents, RHS has turned to the state for guidance on curating its collection. Vacca has had conversations with state curator Jennifer Lemak and state historian Devin Lander, representing the New York State Museum. She says they are offering guidance and advice for preserving the integrity of the collections—which means they are helping RHS decide what to keep. This is protocol for chartered museums or historical societies experiencing difficulty maintaining their holdings, says New York State Museum spokeswoman Antonia Giuliano.

It is an opportunity for the state to raise significant questions, “things like, ‘Perhaps you might think this (item) isn’t significant now, but in the future it might be interpreted this way,’” Vacca says.

“One reason we ended up with so much is that the benchmark always was, ‘Will this contribute to the story of Rochester?’ (That) was too broad. Now we have to identify the stories we want to tell—Rochester and the canal, Rochester and the wars, for example.

“The other benchmark, while it was lovely, it became Grandma’s attic for everybody,” she says. “Every family member can tell you a great story, but ultimately a decision has to be made about what is truly significant.”

The hope for now is that the collections will remain intact—and local.

“The state government has been extremely supportive and is very concerned that the integrity of this collection has to be preserved. It’s one of the mostnotable collections in the state, and that’s not me saying that, it’s the state curator saying that,” Vacca says.

But if RHS can’t come up with a local solution, Vacca says, it will have to concede authority over its collections to the state.

“What that would most likely mean would be that the collections would leave Rochester,” she says. “They will survive because the state does have a great respect for them—I have no concerns that way—but it will be sad that our history will be leaving us.

“Now, that’s down the road, should we be unable to find other local solutions.”

History repeats

 RHS was founded by anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in 1860. It grew more active after Caroline Perkins, a local philanthropist, revived it in 1887 and elevated its status. For many years the collection grew with the support of wealthy Rochesterians.

RHS hired its first full-time staff in 2000. Anne Salter was the executive director. At the time, the organization was in its longtime home, Woodside, a mansion on East Avenue. In the late 2000s, no longer able to afford to maintain the building, RHS sold it and moved into smaller space in the Rundel Building of Rochester Public Library. There, Executive Director Meredith Keller led an effort to give the public something to see. RHS held themed exhibits and offered event space for outside groups.

As the organization’s financial picture grew even bleaker, it failed to pay its rent at the library. RHS chipped away at its staff and moved farther from the public eye to progressively less expensive locations—first to University Avenue and then to its current home on Lincoln Avenue.

The local historical community has buzzed with concern about the society for years. Some contend RHS has not done enough to seek help from its peers, despite its dire situation, in the interest of saving community history.

For the community to work together to save the collections, a certain amount of creativity in how and where various parts of the collections could be housed and cared for is required, says city historian Christine Ridarsky.

“I know there’s momentum in the cultural heritage community to save these collections. I have offered to convene a meeting among the historical community to seek solutions to ensure the collections are preserved and maintained in Rochester. What is important is those collections.”

Carolyn Vacca

Vacca maintains she has talked with a number of organizations about collaborating or merging. But what most communities would consider an asset—a huge and wide-ranging collection reflecting 200 years of local, national and international history—is proving to be its biggest challenge.

“We have approached our sister organizations in the past, and basically the size of our collection was a major disincentive,” Vacca says.

Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College have expressed interest, but space was a concern. Both institutions are active RHS collaborators with interns and research projects. (Vacca is a history professor at St. John Fisher.) The University of Rochester has not indicated any interest, Vacca says.

She had discussions with the Rochester Museum & Science Center when the museum was moving toward a greater focus on science. Vacca hopes that with new director Hillary Olson at the helm, another conversation might take a different path.

“New directors often bring new direction,” she says.

Genesee Country Village & Museum displays restored paintings from RHS in the Livingston-Backus House in a collaborative exhibit called Yesterday’s Child.

“They’ve been excellent partners for us, but again, despite the great potential synergy between us, they don’t have an excess of space or resources,” Vacca says.

City support

Vacca has appealed to city leaders for financial support, so far with no success. She says RHS is the only historical society in New York cities of similar size that does not receive some form of government subsidy. City officials hoped the society could find a new home at ArtisanWorks, an art gallery and event space in North Winton Village. Vacca says early discussions were promising, but in the end there wasn’t enough room to house all of the collections.

“Even if local leaders could carve out a nominal amount that could be relied on, it would allow us to become more innovative and to look for other grants and focus on building that,” she says. “It’s hard to argue for support if you just disappear.”

Ridarsky says the city understands the value of the collections.

“The city will lend its support to a wider community effort to preserve the collections and keep them here in Rochester,” she says.

RHS has received foundational support in the past but cannot currently apply for grants because of its uncertain future, Vacca says.

Board member Calabrese sees this as an opportunity for the Rochester community to come together to protect its cultural heritage. In fact, there is historical precedent: When Kodak founder George Eastman’s collections were in danger of being donated to the Smithsonian, local residents rallied to keep the collection here. He says it’s time for the community to come together creatively in the same way to keep the historical society’s artifacts in Rochester—in whatever form that takes.

“I’m afraid we’re going to get to the point where it’s too little or too late,” Calabrese says. “It’s going to disappear from Rochester and maybe disappear from history. It’s not just a collection; it’s more. It’s irreplaceable history.”

Ridarsky says the collective will to save the artifacts and keep them here already exists.

“We’re hoping the historical society will be able to engage with the rest of the cultural heritage community here. We cannot tell Rochester’s history and do it without the collections at Rochester Historical Society,” she says. “Anything that endangers those collections is terrible. I can’t really emphasize enough how significant these collections are not only to the past but to our future. This community really needs to step up and think about that.”

This is the first part in a two-part series.

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