The Rochester Historical Society’s revenues have been in a downward spiral for years, putting its collections at risk. But in a departure from previous moments of reckoning, RHS and its cultural heritage peers here say they are poised to work together to keep the collections in Rochester where they belong.
The historical society’s revenues have been falling since at least 2010. Gifts, contributions and membership fees that year were $144,266. By 2017, they had fallen to $33,236.
Net assets also nosedived during the same period. At the end of 2016-17 they were $163,500, down by more than half from $371,9 27 at the start of 2014-15.
The story of how the historical society got to this point is a long one, but two themes emerge: an early self-reliance born of monied connections and a difficulty adapting to modern fundraising realities.
Founded in 1860, RHS was reorganized in 1887. In a 1956 Rochester History journal article, city historian Blake McKelvey writes that the society was “an effort to establish a suitable repository to preserve historical documents and mementos from Rochester’s past.” Members held monthly meetings, and donations from the community started coming in—a piece of the original transatlantic telegraph cable, for example, and the city’s first postmaster’s desk. The society also gathered portraits of the city’s pioneers, which remain in the collection to this day.
The first home of the RHS collection was a locked showcase in the University of Rochester library. It then moved to more space on the top floor of Rochester Savings Bank. As the collection and the size of its objects grew, RHS moved again, to the top floor of Reynolds Library on Spring Street.
In 1911, the city acquired the campus of the Western House of Refuge, a youth reformatory that had moved to Rush, “to forestall its conversion into a state penitentiary,” McKelvey writes. The site was cleared for what became Exposition Park, where the Rochester Industrial Exposition, a popular 2-year-old annual celebration of city industry, could be held. The site is now known as Edgerton Park.
The former girls’ dormitory of the reformatory was converted to a public library. Sensing an opportunity for more space for the society’s growing collection, RHS proposed to the mayor that the society move its collections into one end of the library “to form the nucleus of a municipal museum.” The mayor heartily agreed, and on Sept. 14, 1912, the society held its first reception there.
Thousands visited the museum during the Industrial Exhibition that followed, prompting City Council to OK the mayor’s recommendation to create a permanent municipal and historical museum under the library board.
The society’s curator was placed on the public payroll. A new curator appointed two years later made a distinction between donations given to the society and those given to the city. RHS leaders also pushed for a distinction in purpose between the two. They called for the society to “give the city all articles in its possession not strictly relevant to local history in return for public recognition of the society as the sole collector in that field.”
That distinction took time to sort out during the early decades of the 20th century. By January 1920, the historical society’s objects were segregated from the municipal collections, which by now were more extensive.
There was no rigid definition of function for the municipal museum, McKelvey writes, allowing it “to extend coverage freely in response to local interests.” And so Rochester’s municipal museum—the historical society’s “rapidly growing offspring”—took off. The municipal museum opened in its current home on East Avenue in 1942 on land donated by Edward Bausch. The library had moved into its new home on South Avenue in 1936.
While the library and the museum were rolled into city operations, the historical society was not. The society ran much like a social club. Its members were people of means, and they enjoyed the freedom to build their collection as they saw fit.
“Rochester Historical Society had money so they didn’t ask for anything, a very unfortunate decision on their part,” says Carolyn Vacca, RHS board president. But it “also meant they got to do things the way they wanted.”
RHS was offered a donated commercial building on Lake Avenue in 1937 for a museum to be led by Sheldon Fisher, but it abandoned the effort when maintenance costs proved too much, McKelvey writes.
The historical society found a new home in 1940 when Marie Atkinson Willard donated her East Avenue mansion, Woodside. There, RHS housed a growing collection of domestic furnishings, portraits, costumes and many other items. Its library and manuscript collections were now housed at Rochester Public Library under a long-term loan agreement made when it left Edgerton Park.
After many years as an all-volunteer organization, the historical society hired its first full-time staff in 2000. Vacca says from that year until 2006, the organization had an “amazing cash flow,” but it started to spend down its endowment at a precipitous rate. Contributions from the families of longtime patrons had dwindled over the years. Legal issues over the dismissal of its first executive director led to more non-mission-related spending, Vacca says.
Further expenses came with the decision to sell Woodside and move to the library. The mansion needed expensive repairs, including a new roof, and ongoing maintenance it could no longer afford. It had long since outgrown the space, both as a museum and as storage. Legal challenges to the move depleted coffers further.
The historical society has never had a development arm charged with fundraising. Vacca says a consultant hired some years ago for that purpose told the board that while fundraising was important, the society first needed to reduce expenses and the size of its collections. Besides, Vacca says, it takes money to raise money.
“Yes, fundraising campaigns are great, but you need to pay for a fundraiser, and you also need the people to run it,” she says.
A few ideas have been floated over the years: a book, a calendar. The book was nixed because self-publishing costs were deemed too high. And the calendar?
“Go to Barnes & Noble. Who buys calendars anymore?” Vacca says.
Dan Cody, who was the society’s collections manager and registrar, before his contractor position was eliminated in December, says when he and other staff sent emails to board members urging them to seek corporate sponsorships or naming rights to parts of the collection, they were dismissed.
“The present board has failed miserably in acquiring any type of financial support for the society,” Cody says. “They’ve never even tried to get corporate sponsorships, naming rights, and it’s spiraling. They’re circling the drain now.”
Vacca says the board works hard and believes deeply in the mission of the organization, but that the funds to carry out bigger ideas just aren’t there.
“It’s always easy to say, ‘This could have been done, that could have been done.’ But some of the major things that could have been done would have cost more,” she says.
Vacca says in-kind support would be welcome, but the society hasn’t been very successful obtaining it, citing work to upgrade its website as an example. She declines to go into detail.
Events to raise awareness have met with limited success. During its years in the library, under Executive Director Meredith Keller, the society mounted regular exhibits to bring in visitors. An exhibit in 2011 highlighted 10 industries in Rochester. Vacca says the society struggled to get companies featured in the exhibit to subsidize it, though some did.
After the first part of this series—“Rochester’s imperiled heritage”—was posted, WXXI’s Connections aired a program with RHS board members to discuss the historical society’s challenges. You can listen to the program here.
Income from memberships is nominal; member numbers have steadily decreased to the low hundreds. Vacca says members don’t want to come to the current site on Lincoln Avenue.
So, the society has brought the collection and its stories out into the community. Cody, whose last day on the job was Dec. 29, held History on the Road talks on Rochester themes, such as World War I and The Big Three. History Happy Hour, held at Nox, reached young adults, a demographic RHS actively sought, with history trivia games and talks. While the events were popular, they didn’t raise much money. On social media, administrator Kristi Zulke, whose job was eliminated in December, spread the word on upcoming events and shared photos of items from the collection.
Becky Wehle, president and CEO of Genesee Country Village & Museum, knows the challenges of fundraising. She says the days of the easy ask are over.
“The local philanthropic community has really changed. These aren’t the days of Kodak giving hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a lot harder to raise money both from the government and the private sector, and it takes some different tactics,” she says.
Treasures at stake
Cody’s concerns lie largely with the collections. Though some board members mean well and have the interests of the society at heart, he says their knowledge of the organization and its collections is insufficient.
“The only requirement to be a board member is to be a breathing, warm body,” Cody says. “There are members of the board that have never stepped inside the Lincoln Avenue facility, as of Dec. 7, when we shut down our daily operations. They have no idea of what they are fiduciarily responsible for as members of the board.
“The board means well,” he adds, acknowledging that some board members purchased a security system for the collection after a break-in. “But they don’t do enough. It was very hard to get a quorum just so they could get together and vote on things—because they’re all very busy.”
Two board members stepped down last year. Scott Turner, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody whom Cody says worked to extricate RHS from an ArtisanWorks lease, did not return requests for comment. Michael Brown, a history professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, declined to comment on his experience on the board but confirmed the need to keep the collections intact in Rochester on a sustainable footing.
Objects are essential to putting a face on Rochester’s history, Cody says. A drum in the collection is a good example. It was carried by a 13-year-old boy named Alexander Lockie who marched with the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. He joined in 1862, survived the last three years of the war, came home in May of 1865, and died two months later, probably of dysentery. Cody says seeing and touching the drum helps bring Alexander’s story alive.
Because the historical society is selling items in the collection, he worries that such items are at risk.
“This drum could go to someone who is a Civil War artifact collector, and they’re everywhere. There’s nothing to say it will stay in Rochester,” Cody says.
From 2010 to 2018 Cody was charged with sorting through all of the artifacts in the historical society’s collections, culling them so that every piece was properly accessioned. An accessioned artifact has a provenance—a history connected to it, a story about the owner, perhaps—and it has an item number. Of those, artifacts with no special connection to Rochester’s unique stories—petticoats, multiple china sets, sword and handgun collections, paintings of other areas—all have found new homes. Some artifacts had unknown origins, no provenance, and thus were never formally added to the collection; they have long since been dispersed.
The items that remain have Rochester stories to tell, Cody says.
“I was very, very involved on a daily basis with the artifacts. That is the origin of my anxiety over what’s going on in the future,” he says. “There’s no low-hanging fruit that we can eliminate to reduce the footprint of Rochester Historical Society without going into the core collection.”
As it continues to pare down its artifacts, RHS has formed a collections committee that will “look at the collection with fresh eyes,” Vacca says. Members are Marjorie Searle, formerly of the Memorial Art Gallery; Arleen Wright, Historic Brighton; archivist/librarian Bill Keeler; and two board members.
One way museums refine their collections is through a process called deaccession. This is “the formal change in the recorded status of the object,” according to Museum Registration Methods, the bible of museum registrars. Once an item is deaccessioned, there are a number of ways to dispose of it, including transferring it to another museum or organization, offering it for research or educational purposes, repatriating it, or selling it.
Over eight years and several moves, Cody has handled every piece in the historical society’s collection, he says. Before he earned a degree in history, he had a career as a purchasing manager. Preservation concerns aside, he says there are parallels between keeping track of artifacts in the collection and parts in a warehouse.
For deaccessioning, the board would direct him to pull a certain collection. Candidates for deaccession:
- don’t have an accession number (thus were never accessioned to begin with)
- have no Rochester provenance, or
- are falling apart and in bad condition so they can never be displayed again.
Once he had separated the items to be deaccessioned, he pulled the paperwork on each piece and entered information into a spreadsheet to send back to the board: accession number, item description, how long it has been in the collection, whether or not there is a Rochester story connected to it, what that provenance is, and his recommendation for deaccessioning. Once all the members had a chance to review the list, they discussed it and gave him the go-ahead.
Deaccessioned items are sold through one of two auction houses: Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, for higher-end items, and Schultz Auctioneers in Clarence. After the sale, Cody recorded which items were sold and removed them from the collections database. He also removed paper files associated with each item and refiled them in another cabinet. This cabinet holds records for all the society’s artifacts that have been deaccessioned over the years.
Cody says he learned to be scrupulous about records when working with Keller after the controversial Woodside sale and move.
“There was a group of people who wanted to stop the move. So, Meredith always wanted to make sure we could explain to these people where we did it, what we did and how we did it,” Cody says. “We were always afraid of someone coming back and saying we didn’t do things the correct way, and where is this piece?”
Local collector Sarah Hendershot says she has found objects with Rochester Historical Society labels through another house, Hessney Auction House in Geneva.
“I have bought fantastic Rochester ephemera that they sell by the box,” she says. “I was not told it was from Rochester Historical Society, but a lot of the items still have museum numbers on them. Hessney seemed not excited about discussing it with me.”
Cody says auction houses will buy items from each other and turn around and resell them.
Hendershot says most items she has seen are regional and thus perhaps not a perfect fit for a Rochester-centric collection. But an auction about four years ago still haunts her. Sterling silver agricultural medals won in contests around the world by Ellwanger & Barry, the famous Rochester nursery company, were being auctioned off. They were engraved on front and back, and many were in mint condition in velvet-lined boxes. Prices ranged from about $1,000 for a single medal to $4,000 for a lot of 10.
“I thought that was really truly part of Rochester history, and that made me feel bad. If I had had the money, I would have bought these items because they were absolutely exquisite,” Hendershot says.
Another item she saw was an 18-inch bronze or copper statue of Mercury that looked remarkably similar to a much larger statue atop the former Thomson-Reuters building downtown. She suspects it might have been a prototype. Hendershot says it sold for $200. Cody remembers the item; it was deaccessioned before the society’s move from the library.
Cody claims RHS is not currently providing proper stewardship for its collections, citing photographs as an example. RHS has hundreds of photos of buildings, street scenes, people and events. While they are very well-organized, the filing system “is not best practices,” he says.
“Our photos that are not in frames are in manila envelopes standing in file cabinets. They should be lying flat with Mylar between them. Because of our dire financial situation, they can’t do that,” he says.
Leaders in the local cultural heritage community know what a rich collection the historical society has and are eager to help find a solution.
“The main goal is to keep it relevant and keep it accessible to the people in the community,” says Hillary Olson, president and CEO of Rochester Museum & Science Center. “You don’t want these items to go into deep storage or sold at auction and never be seen again. These are the opposite of the goals of museums or historical societies, or of anyone who is collecting on behalf of the public.”
Kathryn Murano Santos, RMSC’s senior director of collections and exhibitions, says the museum has in storage 242 of the historical society’s ethnology objects. It also holds Native North American and archeology objects belonging to RHS.
“We’ve been caring for them on behalf of Rochester Historical Society for decades,” she says.
Genesee Country Village & Museum’s Wehle says she and others are pulling together a meeting of cultural and museum leaders and elected officials from Rochester and around the state. Wehle is a board member of the Museum Association of New York.
“There are a variety of people in this community and the larger New York State museum community who are ready and willing to help, and I hope we can do that in order to keep the collections in Rochester,” she says.
Vacca says she is in talks with museum leaders and the state Education Department and plans to speak with MANY and elected officials.
“We have been doing things. Everybody can always say it’s not enough,” Vacca says.
She envisions a historical society of the future that serves as a central way-pointer for all things having to do with Rochester history—much like the Rochester History Center proposed by former executive director Anne Salter in the early 2000s.
“We’re going to have to function very differently than we do now. Not everything that we have now will be able to stay. That’s impossible,” Vacca says. “Some things … we recognize we need different homes for, and hopefully that will be here in the community, probably on a long-term loan basis. The (collections) committee will continue to meet and we’ll have these conversations.”
Wehle and other museum officials confirm their role in that process—and ask for patience from the public as it plays out.
“We are absolutely committed to helping them, and I think that’s an important message to get out there to the local community,” she says. “There are things going on to try to resolve the situation. Know that there are people who care and will do their best to come to a resolution that can be shared publicly once we have figured that out.”
This is the second of two articles. Read the first article.