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Sarah Jesse named eighth Memorial Art Gallery director

Jesse brings to Rochester more than 20 years of experience working in art museums across the country.

Vertical portrait of Sarah Jesse in black smiling and looking at the camera while leaning against a wall.
Sarah Jesse has been named the Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director of the Memorial Art Gallery, effective February 26, 2024. (photo provided)

University of Rochester President Sarah Mangelsdorf and Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) Board of Managers President Kathryn D’Amanda announced today that Sarah Jesse, director of the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland, has been named the Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director of the MAG, effective February 26, 2024. Jesse brings to Rochester more than 20 years of experience in American art museums, serving in leadership, fundraising, and educational and community programming roles.

“I am thrilled that Sarah Jesse will soon become our eighth museum director, which is a key leadership role that prominently serves both the University and the Rochester community,” says Mangelsdorf. “She is an inspiring leader who uses the power of art to build strong community connections. She believes that art museums can play a significant part in many people’s lives when the barriers to engagement are broken down, and that core belief is very exciting for us as we embark upon our Boundless Possibility strategic plan that emphasizes furthering our commitment to the Rochester community.”

“From our first meeting, we recognized Sarah Jesse as an inspiring, effective communicator, a flexible thinker and sensitive listener,” says D’Amanda. “We learned about her visitor-centered approach, as she passionately believes that art museums are places for everyone. The depth of her experience, paired with a warm, authentic, and approachable presence are the makings of a visionary and collaborative leader—not only by building on recent successes, but also in bringing a new level of energy, innovation, and engagement to us all. I could not be more excited for this next chapter in the life of MAG, the University, and indeed, the entire Rochester community.”

Jesse becomes the museum’s eighth director and succeeds Jonathan Binstock, who left MAG in early 2023 to become director of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Michael Marsh, MAG’s chief operating officer and deputy director, has been serving as interim director since January and will continue in that role until March. The Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director reports to the MAG’s Board of Managers and works closely with them and staff to enhance and implement MAG’s mission, to manage and augment its financial resources, and to develop and implement short- and long-term strategic and business plans. The director also collaborates closely with the University on all aspects of MAG’s operations and is a department of the University reporting through the Office of the Provost.

“Sarah deeply appreciates the special role the MAG plays in the University and the Rochester community,” says University Provost David Figlio. “She has brilliant insights about the MAG as a center of academic excellence that will simultaneously enhance the community and the University. Her museum acumen and community engagement experience are terrific assets for this role, and she brings an energy that promises to serve the University and the Rochester region very well. I am grateful to the search committee’s work in identifying the strongest individual for this key leadership position.”

Jesse has served as director of the Academy Art Museum in Easton since 2021, overseeing a $1.7M operating budget, $7.4M endowment, $2.2M capital project, 24,000-square-foot building, and 1,700-object collection. She was previously deputy director, as well as interim director and CEO, of the Orange County Museum of Art. She also served as associate vice president of education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where she oversaw intergenerational, youth, student, teacher, and community programs. As part of serving in these significant positions, Jesse has led multiple efforts focused on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) in museums, building the sense of inclusivity among everyone in the community, particularly those who’ve traditionally felt excluded.

“Given its resources, its collection spanning 5,000 years of human history, and the tradition of its university partnership, the Memorial Art Gallery has the power to change the lives of not only its visitors and students, but also of Rochester itself, and I am truly excited to be a part of that work,” says Jesse. “At their best, museums contribute not just to the lives of individuals, but also to what makes cities vibrant and desirable to live in. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work at several art museums that have elevated their communities at large in many ways. As both a civic and academic institution, the Memorial Art Gallery serves two audiences, but its dual responsibility is complementary and, to my mind, provides infinite opportunities for this kind of community engagement.”

Jesse also served as the Bernsen Director of Education and Public Programs at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the assistant director of public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

She was chair of the Education Committee of the American Alliance of Museums from 2014 to 2016 and has presented on best practices for the museum education field in the United States, China, and Italy. Jesse received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Oberlin College and a master’s degree in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The MAG director search committee comprised:

  • Kathryn D’Amanda, MAG Board President (Committee Chair)
  • Todd Green, MAG Board Treasurer (Committee Vice Chair)
  • Marilynn Patterson Grant, MAG Board Chair
  • Sonya Allen, MAG Board VP
  • Gail Norris, MAG Board VP
  • Kristin Vanden Brul, MAG Board Secretary
  • Charlie Symington, MAG Board Finance Committee Chair
  • Pete Brown, MAG Board Art Committee Chair
  • Doug Bennett, MAG Board Advancement Committee Chair
  • Jessica Marten, MAG Curator in Charge
  • Sarah Mangelsdorf, University President
  • Joan Saab, former University Executive Vice Provost
  • Elizabeth Milavec, University Executive Vice President of Administration and Finance and CFO
  • Rachel Haidu, University Professor of Art History
  • Robert Goergen, University Board of Trustees member

MAG was founded in 1913 by Emily Sibley Watson as a memorial to her son, architect James Averell. Given in trust to the University of Rochester, it is one of the few university-affiliated art museums in the country that also serves as a community art museum. MAG has played a central role in Rochester’s cultural life for more than 100 years and includes a restaurant, retail shop, library, conference facilities, a 300-seat auditorium, and the Creative Workshop, a community art school, all within 106,000 square feet of interior space.

Today, MAG’s permanent collection includes more than 13,000 works of art, about half of which are works on paper. It is strong in European and American art, with outstanding works by Georges Braque, Gustave Courbet, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, El Greco, Angelica Kauffmann, Claude Monet, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, as well as Elizabeth Catlett, Stuart Davis, Winslow Homer, Yayoi Kusama, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Kehinde Wiley, and numerous others.

In 2013, the 10-acre Centennial Sculpture Park opened, seamlessly connecting MAG with its surrounding neighborhoods. In spring 2023, a major expansion of this park was unveiled to complete the museum’s frontage along University Avenue in the vibrant Neighborhood of the Arts. The expansion is anchored by renowned artist Rashid Johnson’s first permanent outdoor public work of art, a 90-foot-long, 10-foot-high curved wall featuring mosaics of his iconic “anxious crowd” and “broken men” motifs.

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