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RAM100: Rockford Art Museum's Centennial Celebration

Rockford Art Museum is wrapping up its 100th year in a number of big ways. Saturday, the museum hosts its 25th annual Evergreen Ball. Patrons will dine and dance among two-hundred of the museum’s greatest works, which are showcased in the on-going centennial exhibition. There’s also a new book highlighting the stories behind the museum’s growth from a sketch club to a community institution.

  Today, the Rockford Art Museum fits comfortably within Riverfront Museum Park, a busy campus of arts organizations along the Rock River. It wasn’t always like that. The museum’s three galleries and 17-hundred piece collection would undoubtedly impress its founders, who had to rent rooms throughout the city for their exhibitions. In 1913, the Rockford Art Association put on its first show. Sarah Bursley McNamara is community relations director for the museum, and spent much of this year researching its history. She says that first showing of American artists was to attract members to the fledgling arts organization:

“The whole point was that they wanted a permanent collection for Rockford, they wanted a gallery space of their own for the betterment of their community.”

That first exhibition had another goal, too, according to museum curator Carrie Johnson Breitbach:

“It was really cool because it was a big community effort for the first show. We wanted to start a permanent collection so they had the people coming to the show from the community vote for the piece they wanted to be the first piece in our collection.”

The winner? “Beechwoods,” by John Elwood Bundy of Indiana.

Over the next hundred years, more than 17 hundred other paintings, sculptures, and drawings joined “Beechwoods.”

One of those is George Robertson’s “View Near Byron, Rock River, Illinois.” It will look awfully familiar to anyone who has ever driven from driven along the winding river highway south of Rockford. The Scottish immigrant influenced a lot of fellow Rockford artists in his day. McNamara says his subject matter and involvement in the area arts community showed his real commitment to his adopted hometown.

From 19th century landscapes to American outsider art to some pretty cutting edge stuff from local artists today… Breitbach runs through a list of the artists in one section of the exhibit who mean Rockford to her: they include Jim Julin, Betsy Youngquist, Roland Poska, Andy Langoussis, Robert McCauley, Philip Dedrick, and Maggie Thieneman.

Breitbach whittled the collection down to 200 for this exhibition, choosing artwork that best represented the entire inventory and reflected the museum’s 100 year old mission. That’s to educate, exhibit, and maintain an impressive collection for the community. Breitbach says it was easier than it sounds, because she and McNamara had started working on their book about the museum before she had to start thinking about what to hang on the walls.

“Sarah and I were holed up in my office from January to May, with the door closed. We went through St. Patrick’s Day. We were eating corned beef sandwiches from Beefaroo every day, and looking at each other, and finishing each other’s sentences, and kind of going crazy.”

Breitbach says it was actually a dream come true for a couple of art history nerds.  

They went through stacks of charming correspondence between artist Walter Ufer and the museum’s executive director at the time. They got to know Rudolph Ingerle’s beautiful handwriting. And they were able to follow the long-running drama laid out in letters between one patron and a New York gallery director about whether the Hovsep Pushman piece she received was the same one she had purchased…  Some of the museum’s historic documents have made it into the exhibit as well. Those include the first exhibition program, the original membership list, a handdrawn 1896 invitation to the sketch club. That last one was used for the show card for exhibition.

Credit Rockford Art Museum
Rockford Art Museum
"Portrait of a Woman, Munich," by Elbridge Ayer Burbank

They also learned that some of the Rockford Art Museum’s traditions go way back: including being open seven days a week, Donation Day on Tuesdays, and free admission on the Saturday after an exhibit opens. McNamara says even though the museum gets some corporate, federal, state, and Rockford Park District support, it’s absolutely dependent on private giving:

“It’s always been this group of men and women who were absolutely determined that by having a permanent collection and having a permanent space that it would make life better in Rockford for everyone.”

The exhibit “Through the Ages: 100 Years of Rockford Art Museum,” ends its unprecedented five month run January 26th. McNamara and Breitbach’s Rockford Art Museum Centennial book is available through the museum and its website.

Breitbach, McNamara, and Stephens try to decide if the subject of "Portrait of a Woman, Munich" looks judgmental or just uncomfortable. The artist, Elbridge Ayer Burbank, was a Harvard, IL native and was best known for his portraits of native Americans.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.