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Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery – Not a One-and-Done Visit

{From the 2024 Spring magazine}

Story and Photos by Theresa St. John

“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.” - Auguste Rodin

One of the things I love most when visiting The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, has to be the interactive sidewalks known as Poet's Walk and Story Walk. They welcome me into the museum as I walk from my car to the heavy front doors. The walks honor poets and local authors – creative artists of the written word. They’re meant to share Rochester stories, memories, and character histories gathered from community members. I find the words 'ghost' and 'writer' and 'human' among many others – they all make me smile.

I can't even imagine the work that went into collecting/cataloging/displaying more than 13,000 pieces of art covering many cultures worldwide throughout the rooms of this museum. It had to have been such a concentrated effort with attention to detail and a desire on the part of every curator involved to share hundreds and thousands of years of history with the everyday person – me. 

The museum's first floor highlights traveling exhibitions, rotating collections, and permanent displays. There's also a marvelous collection of American art from the colonial period to the present. I spend a good deal of time admiring my favorite 19th-century artist - Winslow Homer, and my 20th-century choice, Georgia O'Keeffe's work, every time I have a chance to visit.  

The 2nd floor exhibits consistently take my breath away: magnificent paintings, priceless artifacts, statues, a room filled with Egyptian coffins, benches where you can sit and stare at the timelessness all around you, and a stunning Italian Baroque Organ in the center of it all. If people hadn’t been setting that room up for a wedding on my last trip, I would've gotten up close and personal, walking up to study the intricate design details of Eastman's organ. The collection of Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Islamic work in this expansive space is outstanding - I've spent hours here and still haven’t seen everything.    

They've even taken their deep love for art outdoors, offering several sculptures that invite tourists and locals to enjoy fresh air and sunshine while walking around the grounds. It’s great to admire the creative imaginations of so many talented artists. When I visited the museum’s website a few days after returning home, I realized that more pieces had been added since I last walked the property. So, I'll need to go back and investigate soon!

Yayoi Kusama, a world-renowned artist from Japan, will be 95 years old this month! For the past 40-plus years, she's chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital, leaving each day to work on her art. I am fascinated and honored to visit MAG and experience her immersive art installation for myself. With shows worldwide, I was delighted to learn her show is in Rochester, just a few hours away from me.  

I have no idea what I will find behind the heavy door ahead of me. A security guard stands there, stoic, with a stopwatch in his hand. A group of visitors chat in front of me, waiting their turn in line to enter. When the time comes, coats, hats, and bags are placed on top of a cabinet, and the man guarding the door speaks detailed instructions before allowing them inside to see the artist’s show. 

I know our tickets are timed, but I have no clue we can only view Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – Let’s Survive Forever for one minute. Ummm, one minute? 60 seconds? When I ask about the timeframe, the gentleman explains that it’s standard for all her Mirrored Room experiences; it is how the visionary has designed each one. 

Usually, when I visit a museum, it takes me a few hours to soak it all in. I like to sink my teeth into the history and culture of the place, especially if I’m going to write about it later. Like I’ve already said, I’ve been to Memorial Art Gallery – fondly known as MAG many times. The artwork and collection of artifacts are stunning, and there are several galleries that I favor. But the revolving galleries constantly pique my interest, and as this is my first opportunity to catch a glimpse into the world of Yayoi Kusama, I am incredibly excited. 

Soon, it is my turn. I am ready! My camera and phone are already set so that I can maximize my allotted time beyond the door. I’m surprised at how peaceful, yet at the same time chaotic, I find it to be. There are spheres on the floor, hanging from the ceiling, mirrors all around me. I can’t escape the feeling that I am everywhere. There are so many reflections as I walk and turn round and round in the wide-open space. I have the strangest feeling that if one of ‘me’ can’t do something, go somewhere, discover a new path, another one of me will. 

There’s a tap on the door; it signals that I have 15 more seconds to gather myself before leaving. I stand still, thinking about how powerful I feel being in that room, also realizing how small I am in the grander scheme of things. When the door swings open, I am waved outside. I collect my things and move to walk away; turns out 60 seconds revealed enough. -