Fun in Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery

While  I was in Rochester, I visited the Memorial Art Gallery. Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a sucker for an art museum. I love them, and I’ve found that, for a couple of hours at a time, my kids really love art museums, too.

The MAG’s collection is extensive, with Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Islamic art; contemporary art; and every period in between. If you’re looking for big names, you’ll find Claude Monet, John Constable, Georgia O’Keefe, and Norman Rockwell, among others. What’s lovely, though, is that the collection is not as overwhelming as a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, where I’m always tempted to cover the girls’ eyes so that we can blast through the Etruscan sculpture and get to a gallery of stuff that I want to see. The MAG has breadth and quality, and the space itself is beautiful, especially the fountain court with Baroque art. But I didn’t get lost. Which is a relief when you’re trying to enjoy yourself while preventing your kids from running. Or touching everything. Or, you know, touching anything. Sure, there are moments of stress. In some galleries, the lovely seating available and the historic furniture on display appear (to my ignorant eyes) almost interchangeable, so a rule of “always ask before you sit” is a good one here. At one of the temporary exhibitions I visited, intricate glass sculptures looked so delicate that I felt too nervous to walk around the gallery all by myself!  But that’s what you’ll find at almost any art museum, and I’d argue that it’s a valuable lesson for children to learn to comport themselves in spaces that feel like they’re made for grown-ups. Whether you choose to work on this at age 3 or age 7 depends on your child and your own levels of parenting anxiety and ambition.

Parents of young children feel a vibe for or against children quickly, and of course any visit is better if you feel welcome. There are free umbrella strollers in the lobby and an atrium area near the admissions desk that is open to the public, so it offers a relaxed place to take a break or meet up and an immediate welcome. This, along with a new installation designed for kids and a vibrant arts education program that puts children into studios with working artists, results in a great vibe for families.

The new long-term installation, Renaissance Remix, offers insight into art and society during the Renaissance as well as the opportunity to touch items, computer screens, and the exhibits themselves (what is it, I wonder, that’s so compelling about any lift-a-flap? Even when kids don’t read them, they want to lift them!).

Touchable armor

The gallery introduces kids to looking at art in an intentional way by pointing out details in paintings, like the different symbols involved in portraiture. In its focus on the Renaissance, it shows how art offers a window into worlds that seem quite different from our own.

I loved the display about gender differences.  Later I was in some gallery (sorry–I forget which!) and there is a washerwoman, a priestess, and a harem girl all portrayed in different pieces so close to each other that the former museum educator in me wanted to start working on a curriculum about women and girls immediately. I managed to restrain myself.

Kids can move the pieces to see how boys and girls were treated differently in the 16th century

Throughout the museum, there is plenty of adult- and kid-accessible art. There was just plain cool stuff, like Devorah Sperber’s  After Grant Wood (American Gothic) 3, in which visitors hold up a special viewer (a sort of glass orb) to see the massive collection of of spools of thread transform into American Gothic.  Paintings include familiar themes, like a nursing mama in Jean-Baptiste Le Prince’s The Visit or Frans Snyder’s The Fable of the Fox and the Heron. Cool old trade signs are fun, and by the time I found the Merry-Go-Round Goat I was thinking that this museum would be awesome for an animal hunt. Then I realized that they already have an animal hunt! They have three “Art-Spot at the MAG” sheets, each offering 20 different scavenger-hunt images so that kids can search for various animals, people, or children and their toys throughout the museum. These sheets are awesome, with great images and a complete description on the back in case you’re stumped on a hunt. The only improvement I would make would be to add the name of the gallery where each image is found. But it’s a terrific activity for kids to help keep them engaged.

I also loved the temporary exhibitions on my visit. I’m not so great with modern and contemporary art. My little brother is a kick-butt artist getting his MA at Yale School of Fine Arts right now, and I’m so proud of him, but I don’t really understand his stuff anymore. I do when he explains it, but my brain hurts a little bit. Which is funny, because years ago I went to the Picasso Museum in Paris; the work was arranged chronologically, and I remember that sometime when he was in his twenties, Pablo just lost me. So at least my brother’s in good company! In any case, I was surprised by how accessible the contemporary art at the MAG felt to me, which means there are curators choosing well. Or choosing down to my level, maybe. One of the exhibitions included Tweets with the location from which they’d been Tweeted, and I was totally rolling my eyes at the premise, which sounded like cheesy-ville to me, but then I found it surprisingly moving. Possibly I was on some sort of Art High at that point.

The MAG has a gift shop that’s a trove of finds featuring many local artisans, and there’s lunch or brunch available in a small cafe. There a couple of simple options, like an English muffin or macaroni and cheese, but it’s a bit small and quiet, so you’d probably do better to bring some snack food and take a break in the atrium or picnic outside at one of their picnic tables instead. The museum offers Family Days as well as Art and Story Strolls for the preschool set. You can find their upcoming family programs here. Admission to the MAG is $12/adult, $5/kids 6 to 18, and kids 5 and under free. Details here.

If you want to see more posts about my adventures in Rochester, or other locations beyond the Capital District, check out my page Beyond the Capital District: A Round-up of Reviews of Family Destinations.

If you’d like more opinions on Rochester, my friend Adrienne from Albany Kid just wrote some reviews as well:



  1. Erin T

    Thank you for this post! Next time I am in Rochester with the kids, I’m checking out the Memorial Art Gallery, which was a favorite spot as a kid. It also reminds me how relatively unfriendly I find the Albany Institute galleries.

  2. @Erin T, I really LOVED the MAG. Although in Albany Institute’s defense, they did recently have that very hands-on history-of-toys exhibition.

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