MOUNT MORRIS — During a dark time in our nation’s history when all felt lost and forgotten there was a glimmer of hope that sustained us.
The Livingston Arts Center is housed in what once was part of the tuberculosis complex in the 1930s.
It all started when Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York. Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin’s wife, visited Murray Hill and thought it would be a peaceful place for the tuberculosis patients.
Before that the breathtaking landscape got its name from John and Harriett Murray who were the first residents in 1837. It would change hands for nearly a hundred years until being noticed by Eleanor Roosevelt.
On April 20,1932 the four buildings on top a grassy hill became the Mount Morris Tuberculosis Sanatorium. It opened its doors in 1936 and remained in operation until 1971. In 1972 the county purchased the sanatorium for one dollar, and along with it came the richest art collection in our nation’s history.
Livingston Arts Director Chris Norton talked about the importance of the Works Progress Administration, often referred to as WPA.
During the Great Depression many artists from New York City were commissioned by President Roosevelt to create artwork for the tuberculosis patients. The federal government provided these starving artists with a way to feed their families and make some money.
“They got these paintings for all of the buildings. There were some in the nurses quarters, but most of them were put in the patients rooms,” Norton said. “When the county purchased the buildings they turned the doctor's apartments into the arts center. We also got all 230 paintings.”
This historic collection is the only one of its kind in the whole world. The art center rotates them once or twice a year, so that everyone gets to see something new in the galleries. As of now the gallery is focusing on women, so all of the WPA paintings by or of women are being showcased.
“They did a painting a month and no one told them what to paint,” Norton said. “It is amazing to see what they came up with. These paintings were meant to help the patients recover.”
The last remaining artist of that time period passed away in 2011, Norton added.
“These were not million dollar pieces of art,” he said. “No one would know who these artists were unless they were huge art enthusiasts.”
Norton said he enjoys the 1930s style living room that is made up of antiques he found, or donated from locals.
“We have an old radio that plays the music of that time period, and all of the paintings are from the historic collection,” he said. “It shows what it was like to be in the 1930s.”
The New Deal Gallery got its start in 2008 and was named after the programs President Roosevelt started in the Great Depression era. It is here we see art from local artists all over the county, and most of it is available for purchase. The historic collection is owned by the federal government and is not for sale.
There is a 1930s kitchen that separates the old from the new. Norton said when they get couples usually one will sit in the kitchen and watch documentaries while the other explores the art.
As of now the local artist featured in apartment one is Dwight Folts, whose work can be seen until Aug. 29. On Sept. 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. an opening reception will be available to the public featuring local artists Patrice Case and Terry Finch. Case will have metal and clay art pieces and Finch will have digitally enhanced photography.
The Livingston Arts Center also has a 1930s library collection upstairs available for the public to checkout during gallery hours, a gift shop, and classes available throughout the upstairs and basement. Norton mentioned if anyone is interested in teaching an art class there is plenty of space available.
The center stresses that this is a non-profit organization that is run on donations and grants, but is deeply grateful to the county for maintaining the building.
Genesee Valley Arts Grants go to help local schools, churches, and communities with art related events throughout the year.
There are also several historic paintings that could use some restoring, and for this the organization has an “adopt a painting” program which allows the public to help keep them alive.
Livingston Arts Outreach Director John Rutigliano said there are a lot of talented artists in this county.
“Almost 20 percent of the county has seen something we have funded, and that is huge,” he said. “We make more artist events possible. I am very happy with what we do here.”
Rutigliano mentioned the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia and Craig Colony in Sonyea had the same idea as the Mount Morris Tuberculosis Sanatorium. It was all about a community of like individuals being able to work together.
“The county is very respectful to the history and integrity of these buildings,” he said.
Rutigliano is very passionate about the art as a whole within these historic walls.
“It gave America room to explore the public canvas by inspiring artists and the rest of the world,” he said. “We value our partnership with the county and the history. This is a great opportunity for people, especially students.”
“There is still a lot of value in coming to an art gallery and having this social connection to the artwork,” Rutigliano continued. “You can spend 30 minutes connecting with the artists through their work, and get some new perspective on something you may see everyday.”
Rutigliano explores the artwork by looking at it through the artist's eyes.
“You can find beauty in the unanswered questions,” he said. “We have paintings that have survived 80 years, and they are in great shape. You can look at them now and immerse yourself in what the artist must have been thinking. To be able to still relate to an 80-year-old painting is amazing.”
For more information on the gallery, how to get involved, classes, and grants you can visit their website at http://livingstonarts.org/ The Livingston Arts Center is located at 4 Murray Hill Drive. They can be reached at 585-243-6785 to set up an appointment for special occasions. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.