Rochester’s 150-Year-Old Historical Society Hit Hard by Lack of Funding

The institution, which houses such precious relics as clothing worn by Susan B. Anthony, has furloughed its staff and suspended its programming

rochester historical society
Woodside Mansion, home to the Rochester Historical Society since 1941 Onasill ~ Bill Badzo/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The more than 200,000 objects and documents amassed in the collections of the Rochester Historical Society tell the story of the city and the people who once lived there. Included in this vast arsenal are artifacts from Civil War soldiers, the papers of the city’s founder, Nathaniel Rochester, and a skirt and hat worn by civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony, one of Rochester’s most famous residents.

But the Rochester Historical Society's future is in jeopardy. According to James Gilbert of Rochester First, the New York institution, established in 1860, has announced that it is suspending operations due to lack of funding.

In a December Facebook post, the society said it was struggling for some time to stay afloat. The institution does not receive public funding—“unlike most other historical societies in NY state,” according to the post—and it is prohibited by state law from selling any of its artifacts. So board members tried to raise sufficient funds in other ways: applying for grants, hosting fundraisers, collaborating with other organizations and lobbying the city and county for additional support. Ultimately, however, these efforts were not enough to sustain the society’s large collection.

“We are in an area of over 8,000 square feet, and that’s extraordinarily expensive even at the best rental rates, and we just need to downsize,” Carolyn Vacca, president of Rochester Historical Society, tells the local WXXI News. “We just cannot support moving forward with that amount of required square footage.”

Before the start of 2019, the society canceled its programs and furloughed its staff. The library and all it contains—books, photographs, artworks, artifacts, architectural drawings, maps—are still accessible to the public, but only by appointment.

“Our primary purpose at this point is to ensure the care, protection, and integrity of our extensive collections,” the society wrote in its Facebook posts. “All of our artifacts are, and will continue to be, appropriately stored and secured.”

The institution is in talks with the state historian and state curator about the future of its holdings. But the story of the Rochester Historical Society is not necessarily over. Vacca tells WXXI that she hopes that the local community will step in to help.

“We will try to get public support,” she said. “What we would like to do is finalize some conversations with the state to see exactly what the plan would be, and then to return to the public with an announcement.”

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