“Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” is a contemporary exhibit running through Oct. 19. With the artist, at right, is Lisa Hostetler, curator-in-charge of the Department of Photography at George Eastman House. (Photo by Nick Brandreth)
Leaders at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film see the museum as having two audiences: the local patrons who visit the house and the national ones who benefit from its extensive collection of film and photography. Now the non-profit has plans to advance both.
The museum is planning renovations to the home of the Eastman Kodak Co. founder on East Avenue while also introducing the museum to new audiences nationwide.
Bruce Barnes, George Eastman House director, said the plan to renovate the museum is actually continuing a project now 25 years old. In 1988, the organization underwent a major project to renovate the historic house, restoring it for the first time to its condition when George Eastman lived there.
“It was a very major project by a terrific group of people, mostly women,” Barnes said. “They did a fantastic job of taking a house used as a museum and not as a historic house, where all the belongings had been stored away, and finding all the things and returning the first floor to an accurate representation of what it was like when George Eastman lived there.”
The project continued a few years later with a roof replacement, Barnes noted, and now the new work will focus on areas of the house not restored earlier.
“These are places that have all reached stages ranging from serious to critical need of restoration, so we’re starting these projects that will really complete the restoration that was started 25 years ago,” he said.
The project will cost $2.5 million to $3 million, Barnes said. The organization already has received $625,000 for the project from a single donor, and the museum has applied for a $500,000 grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to help fund the renovation as well as restoration of some historic garden structures.
Some of the work is long overdue, Barnes said, and the museum is working on ways to ensure that it can be continually cared for.
“This is not a new strategy; it’s a refocusing on something we probably had let go a little longer than we should have because of limitations,” he said. “One of the things we’re doing as part of this project is establishing an endowment that would allow us to do this on an ongoing basis to keep everything in good condition. We have an ongoing commitment to George Eastman’s historic estate, and this will tend to that.”
At the same time, the archive and gallery building constructed in the late 1980s to house the collection and host photographic shows will receive some upgrades, Barnes added.
“After 25 years, a building like that needs upgrades in some of the mechanical elements,” he said. “We want to focus on that, and we’ve received a grant to do a comprehensive review.”
The renovations recognize two of the important missions of the George Eastman House, board chairman Steven Schwartz said.
“The house is an important asset to the city and the region, but the collections are a national treasure and so many people come to Rochester to see them,” he said.
As the George Eastman House plans upgrades to its physical home on East Avenue, it is also expanding its reach to hubs of interest nationwide. Barnes said the organization is working on a stronger presence in cities with strong film and photography circles, including Chicago and Los Angeles.
Doing so will not only bring in new stakeholders but also increase the base of donors, Barnes said.
“We’re planning on reaching out more broadly to the community outside Rochester,” he said. “Our institution really is one of an international stature, and it’s hard for a place the size of Rochester to support that institution alone locally based on attendance and especially philanthropy.”
For many years the museum’s board of trustees had representatives from cities like New York, Chicago, Toronto and London, but now the organization is instituting a major push to develop its base of trustees outside Rochester.
The George Eastman House remains “absolutely committed” to Rochester, Barnes noted, but also aims to have more people recognize its place in the world of film and photography preservation.
“There is a lot of interest in the Eastman House among people who are passionate about photography who don’t happen to live in Western New York,” Barnes said. “We need to and are planning to reach out more effectively to them and form a basis of national support.”
The museum already has made strides in New York City, including the Light & Motion Gala. The event highlights the museum’s work in photography and film preservation while also paying tribute to leaders in the fields. At the 2014 Light & Motion Gala, the museum honored film critic Leonard Maltin and director Alexander Payne.
It is not just individual support the museum is seeking, Barnes said.
“We’re also looking for more chances for alliances with other institutions,” he said. “Broadening access to our collection is a high priority, and we’ll also be doing more and more on the Web, including a push to make our database accessible, with images from our collection available on the Web.”
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