Skip to main content

Mr. Arnot's Museum, Elmira, New York


To be accurate, it doesn't go by that name, but it might as well. Matthias Hollenback Arnot liked art, bought art, and hung the art where he liked it in a room he had built for it, and when he left it to the city of Elmira, he left instructions for it to be kept that way.


Like the larger efforts of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner in the 19th century and Pennsylvania's Albert Barnes in the 20th, the Arnot Museum in Elmira gives us a view of a collection presented in a way that on the one hand seems dated in its density, but also gives us a view of the collector.


MH ArnotArnot himself was a significant figure in Elmira in the late 1800s; Yale-educated and the son of the local magnate who built the Greek Revival mansion the museum occupies, he went into banking and founded one of the main local banks, the Chemung Canal Bank. He used the bank's wealth and influence to finance industrial growth in the area, including railroad building.

In his late 30s, he began buying art; unlike many new patrons of the arts in the period, he didn't rely on dealers to find what he wanted; he traveled extensively, buying from artists and galleries. He built the main gallery of the museum, an extension of the family mansion, specifically to show the collection. An obituary gives some sense of his range of interest and his status among his peers.


In his lifetime, he gave public showings and encouraged art students; at his death in 1910, he left the collection and the house to the city, along with an endowment that would allow the new museum to continue collecting. The museum opened in 1913.


A series of galleries in a new wing and on upper floors are home to most of the newer collections, which extend out quite a bit from Arnot's taste in classic European and American art.


But not as far, clearly, as the temporary exhibits on offer the day we visited: a display of trackside photographs appealing to motorsports enthusiasts, and an extensive display of photo-realistic paintings, including one of another museum. To be honest, I've yet to absorb the value of making a painting appear to be a photograph, beyond the marvel that it can be done.


Not all of the museum is indoors; A 1970s acquisition sits on a nearby lawn, practically inviting visitors to join for an outdoor, and socially-distanced picnic. It's actually a work by William Dickey King, called 'Direction.'



Images (17)
  • P1070700
  • P1070702
  • P1070703
  • P1070704
  • P1070705
  • P1070706
  • P1070707
  • P1070708
  • P1070709
  • P1070710
  • P1070712
  • P1070713
  • P1070714
  • P1070715
  • P1070716
  • P1070724
  • MH Arnot

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (1)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

I like the fact that Mr. Arnot traveled extensively to find and buy the artworks that he personally liked, and not have a dealer pick out art on his behalf.  A real hands-on art collector who allowed the public to view the pieces and encourage the talent of art students.

George G

Link copied to your clipboard.