Emily Sibley Watson (1855-1945) contributed much to the enrichment of the city’s cultural life through her generosity as a patron of art and music. Few have been as instrumental in shaping the cultural landscape of Rochester, where, as heir to her father’s Western Union telegraph fortune, she bestowed her riches upon the community. She single-handedly founded the Memorial Art Gallery, in honor of her son, and helped launch the Rochester Civic Music Association. She also was the driving force behind the establishment of the David Hochstein Memorial Music School, with assistance from RMHF inductee George Eastman and Rochester musicians. Continuing today, as Watson had planned from its inception, enrollment in Hochstein’s programs is open to the entire community, welcoming and nurturing students of all ages, all levels of skill, and all backgrounds.
Born and educated in Rochester, NY she was a member of one of the city’s first families. She was the daughter of the Western Union Company founder, Hiram Sibley, the sister of Hiram Watson Sibley whose music collection became the Sibley Music Library, and the wife of banker and philanthropist James Sibley Watson. Her position of wealth and prominence was soundly planted, but so too were her roots and a commitment to Rochester.
Mrs. Watson traveled throughout the world seeing and experiencing a side of life not common to the streets of Rochester. She gained a fond appreciation of art and music and with her generosity greatly enriched Rochester’s cultural life. She took on musical protégés advising them and assisting them with financial support. Upon hearing for the first time young David Hochstein practicing the violin at a neighbors home she immediately recognized his great potential and became his benefactor allowing him to study under the finest teachers.
Her close friendship with George Eastman no doubt influenced his own appreciation for music and led him to purchase David two rare violins and finance his continued studies in St. Petersburg, Russia under Leopold Auer, considered to be the finest violinist of the time.
Upon the death of David Hochstein in war Emily Sibley Watson sought to honor his life. With her friend George Eastman they founded the Hochstein Music School in David’s memory. To this day the Memorial Music School has served as Rochester’s community school of the arts and has produced many talented individuals.
She died peacefully in her home on Prince St. at the age of 90. Her life had been spent finding ways to use her wealth to better her community. An editorial appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle the day after her funeral. It read:
Made Community Richer. An indication of the spirit in which Mrs. James Sibley Watson made her contributions to Rochester opportunities for cultural enjoyment is contained in the fact that when she established the Memorial Art Gallery she was particularly interested in making it a place for living art rather than a dead storehouse of treasures. The children’s classes and others that have helped carry out this purpose have given the Rochester gallery a reputation and standing among galleries of the country which is respected and recognized by directors of more famous institutions. This interest was backed by generous gifts to the Gallery’s collection as well as the initial building and with her husband, the large addition which doubled its capacity. Her interest in the Genesee Hospital, in the Rochester Civic Music Association, her special interest in David Hochstein and the establishment of the Hochstein Music School in his memory, revealed her genuine desire to use her wealth for the enrichment of the life of all her Rochester neighbors and for the alleviation of their distress. Neither advanced age nor illness dimmed her interest in others or her helpfulness. The boys of the Army Air Corps who trained here and marched past her window daily through several months had reason for their daily salutes beyond the material contributions she made to their comfort and recreation. She was a Rochesterian whose name and personality will be recalled for many years as the cultural inspiration of her benefactions persists. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 9, 1945 and February 10, 1945.