Small gallery—big impression

Rebecca Johnson opens presidential home to Liberty Hill Gallery

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A. Sue Weisler

Liberty Hill Gallery offers a distinctive setting for visitors to enjoy and appreciate art in a Martha Stewart-like setting. The six-week rotational exhibitions showcase the work of students, faculty and alumni in RIT’s 
College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.

There are “no strings” attached to Rebecca Johnson’s alternative art space. 

While RIT President Bill Destler lined the original walls of their two-story historic home with his antique banjo collection, his wife decided to create an RIT fine art exhibition space along the newer cobblestone wall extension of their Liberty Hill residence. 

Surrounded by windows that overlook the pool and meticulously groomed gardens of this 21-acre property, the enclosed porch area—which runs across the length of the house—has truly become a “room with a view” since the Liberty Hill Gallery opened in 2007.

Johnson’s pride in showcasing RIT’s artistic talent has become one of her missions here, and with the help of Zerbe Sodervick, director of extended studies at RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, the Liberty Hill Gallery has featured nine fine art installations with 33 artists represented. 

“Having an art venue in my home is a wonderful experience,” Johnson says. “I smile when I look at our ever-changing wall space. This porch area is our gathering center—where Bill and I do most of our entertaining for sometimes 70 to 80 people—and the displays have turned into real conversation pieces.” 

Built in 1839, Liberty Hill Farm officially became the 
RIT president’s home after Dr. and Mrs. Frank Lovejoy 
Jr. donated it to the university in 1979 during the 150th 
anniversary campaign. “We hold a number of community-driven events including receptions, dinners and celebrations,” Johnson explains. 

“Our monthly Liberty Hill Breakfast Series offers a 
diverse range of topics and attracts people from all walks 
of life. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have RIT 
students, faculty and alumni display their art so our visi-tors could become more aware of the fine arts component 
of campus—which doesn’t show up in our name?’”

Then Johnson laughs: “I think we should rename 
the school RITA: Rochester Institute of Technology and 
the Arts.”

Being in a private residence differentiates the Liberty Hill Gallery from other RIT galleries open to the public: Bevier, School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, Dyer Arts Center at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and Gallery r—the student-run gallery on Park Avenue.

First of all, there are no regular gallery hours, and second, the artwork is displayed not on a flat surface, but a bumpy cobblestone wall. 

“Certainly the cobblestone was the real challenge, and if you look closely you can see the anchors and screws on the mortar where we’ve hung our pieces,” Sodervick explains. “This is an atypical gallery because it’s a home as well as an entertainment center where guests are mingling, eating, drinking and conversing while admiring the artwork. We had to make sure our exhibitions would emphasize the space, not take it over.”

Since coming to RIT two years ago, Johnson has made a strong imprint on the university in other capacities besides the arts—championing such causes as sustainability, the Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival, and even participating in the two-night, three-day Dorm Challenge to experience the ups and downs of RIT student on-campus living. 

And Johnson’s quick trademark wit is all part of the package. “It never ceases to amaze me that even though Bill gives banjo tours to all Liberty Hill visitors, they still come back,” she says. “Obviously, they’re returning for the art.”