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Arts and Literature

Emily Sibley Watson (1855–1945)

Founder of the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. Philanthropist and patron of the arts in Rochester.

An illustration of Emily Sibley Watson
Illustrated by Michael Osadciw

Emily Sibley Watson left a significant mark on the city and the University of Rochester, with numerous works of generosity and philanthropic tributes to those she appreciated, loved, and lost.

While she enjoyed every luxury and advantage in life—stately homes, extensive travel, and great riches—she also endured more than her share of heartache and tragedy, including the death of her beloved son James G. Averell. In both exalted and tragic circumstances, Watson was driven to make a difference.

Watson was born into a prominent family of extraordinary wealth and privilege. She was the youngest daughter of Hiram Sibley, a pioneer in telegraphy and founder of Western Union.

Watson inherited her father’s love of the arts and his passion for collecting. As she traveled the world, experiencing distant cultures and taking in the wonders of antiquity, Watson collected paintings, sculptures, and artifacts of great beauty and significance, including master works by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

It might have been easy to take such things for granted, but Watson’s mother, Elizabeth Tinker Sibley, instilled in her daughter a sense of social responsibility and compassion. Watson joined in her mother’s charitable work from a young age, helping to establish and support Genesee Hospital and Saint Andrew’s Church.

Throughout her life, Watson carried on her mother’s philanthropic work for medical, cultural, and educational institutions as well as individuals. She took a particular interest in artists and musicians, including David Hochstein and the Hochstein School of Music & Dance.

When forged with profound sorrow, however, Watson’s generosity of spirit and artistic sensibility came together to create the magnificent Memorial Art Gallery (MAG), which was Watson’s crowning achievement. Watson conceived, built, and founded this gallery to serve as an enduring memorial to her firstborn son, architect James George “J.G.” Averell, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 26.

Inspired by one of Averell’s sketches from a recent trip to the Malatesta Temple in Rimini, Italy, Watson’s nephew designed the original building to resemble “a renaissance jewel box,” with a tribute to Averell carved into the ornamentation.

“An ornamental border of carved stone runs along the building’s recessed arches. It bears both wreaths of roses and lamps, intertwined with the initials of J.G.A. Those roses and lamps are symbolic of memory, while the initials are those of the young man the Gallery was built to honor.”

—Donovan A. Shilling, They Put Rochester on the Map

This stunning, architectural memorial now holds the artistic and cultural jewels Watson collected over her lifetime. She donated the gallery to the University of Rochester in 1912, with the understanding that it shall remain “a means alike of pleasure and of education for all the citizens of Rochester.”

The Memorial Art Gallery has thus stayed open to the public, with educational programs for local children and University students alike, along with lectures, concerts, tours, and community activities. Widely regarded as one of the finest museums in New York, MAG has more than 13,000 pieces in its collection, including those in the Centennial Sculpture Park.

The museum’s most treasured piece remains a bas-relief of James G. Averell, commissioned for the opening in 1913. Upon this likeness of her son, a quote from Watson reads, “He loved life, beauty and honor. His mother dedicates this building to his memory.”

Awards and Honors
  • Memorial Art Gallery – 2nd floor gallery named in her honor
  • Rochester Music Hall of Fame Charter Inductee
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