Born in Rochester on June 5, 1905, Isabel was the younger daughter of George L. Herdle, the Gallery’s first director, and Elizabeth Bachman Herdle. When the new museum was dedicated in 1913, older sister Gertrude was on hand. But Isabel, suffering from a bad case of poison ivy, was not. According to MAG historian Betsy Brayer, her parents worried that she would not sit still. It was one of the only times Isabel would not be present for a Gallery milestone.
In 1932, Isabel joined her sister as assistant director in charge of exhibitions, programs and collections. She also would serve 40 years, retiring in 1972 as associate director and curator. There could be no accusations of nepotism. Isabel’s academic credentials were impeccable. A 1927 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Rochester, she went on to receive a masters degree in arts from Harvard University. She won a Carnegie Fellowship for study at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, and the Courtauld Institute in London, England. She also studied at the Technical School of Design at Stockholm, Sweden, and worked at the Rhode Island School of Design and in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Together, the Herdle sisters were responsible for transforming the infant Gallery into an important museum. On a shoestring budget with few major supporters, they developed a collection spanning 50 centuries and representing diverse cultures. Fully half of MAG’s 11,000 works were acquired on their watch. They initiated cherished programs, often running them single-handedly. And they presided over the founding in 1940 of the Women’s Council (now the Gallery Council), an all-volunteer organization that has raised more than $2 million for MAG.
For their efforts, Gertrude and Isabel were honored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce with the 1986 Culture and Arts Civic Award. In 1990 they received a special citation from the Rochester Arts & Cultural Council. and they were honored, along with their late father, in December 1983, when a plaque recognizing the family’s contributions was unveiled in the Gallery’s Fountain Court.