Grace McCann Morley

If you haven’t gotten swept up in the exuberance of celebratory zeal emanating from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), it’s time. The museum is utilizing the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary to look back on itself. In doing so, it provides us the opportunity to get a better sense of how rich and influential this art institution is, and has been since its inception in 1935.
The umbrella tagline for all events associated with the anniversary, “75 Years of Looking Forward,” couldn’t be more appropriate when describing SFMOMA, beginning from day one with the appointment of Grace L. McCann Morley as the first director. She set a tone for the museum that resonates to this day.
Born in 1900, Morley was raised in the Bay Area. Her early academic training was in language. She earned a master’s degree in French from Cal Berkeley and went on to become a teacher—one of the primary professions educated women pursued at that time. As fortuitous opportunity would have it, she was asked to also teach art history, which led to Morley studying Museumology at Harvard University for a summer. Out of this influential department—it was then a new field of study—came a whole generation of museum curators and administrators. Morley went on to become a curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and then director of what was then the San Francisco Museum of Art. 
Morley’s forward-looking museum philosophy positioned the institution as a community and educational venue. At the time, most museums were aimed at scholars, serving more as research institutes to the already initiated and repositories of precious objects. And typically those objects were old, already indoctrinated into the cannon of art history. Opportunities to see contemporary work were few. SFMOMA was only the second museum in the country to focus on art of the time; MOMA New York was the first having opened just six years previous, in 1929.
Morley’s populist view led her to offer a huge variety of exhibitions; she interspersed traditional art with more challenging work. Her belief was that she would offer something for everyone and entice people to stretch their art-appreciation boundaries. She also began to offer educational lectures and classes.
Reactions to her efforts varied to the extreme. While researching the current exhibitions, the curatorial staff unearthed a stash of hate mail, which spoke out against her showing unconventional and nontraditional styles, such as Surrealism, Dada, and Cubism. At the other end of the spectrum, on the final day of the hugely popular Pablo Picasso retrospective in 1940, an adamant crowd of over 1,300 visitors refused to leave when the museum was closing; they stayed until they were done absorbing the magnificent show. Morley inspired passions that no doubt matched her own; something everyone would agree on is that she was unwaveringly dedicated. For example, working with a very limited budget and a tiny staff, the museum presented 75 to 100 exhibitions per year for the first five years (in comparison, the museum today puts on 30 to 35, in a larger space, with a larger budget and much larger staff).
Over time it would become increasingly evident that the strong-willed and determined Morley was keyed in to the pulse of the rapidly changing art world. During Morley’s tenure, many artists who would become seminal figures received their first solo exhibitions at SFMOMA, including Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. That eye for emerging talent continues today; SFMOMA has also been the first museum venue to show Edward Ruscha, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and Olafur Eliasson. Under Morley, the museum became the first to create a television show; run in the 1950s, it was the first television programming to focus on art. This was just one more creative and innovative way she brought art to the masses.
The museum has ever since been on the forefront of utilizing and embracing media and technology. It was, in 1987, the first to establish a media arts department, and with the creation in 1994 of the Interactive Educational Technologies program, SFMOMA has remained a leader in developing computer based, interactive educational features on art.  
Grace Morley led the museum until 1958. She earned the deep respect of the art world and general public the world over. On the occasion of the museum’s twentieth anniversary, she was featured in Time magazine. She also worked as a consultant for UNESCO.  From SFMOMA, she moved to India to help set up the National Museum there; Morley remained in India until her death in 1985.
Her legacy lives on in San Francisco. In addition to the many influential initiatives already mentioned, Morley is responsible for starting the museum’s permanent collection (it had no holdings when she began, which makes her ambitious and prolific exhibition programming all the more impressive), and making a commitment to supporting and showing the work of regional artists.
The current exhibitions, featuring in large part selections from SFMOMA’s outstanding permanent collection, give us all a unique glimpse at the history of the museum as well as an opportunity to understand, through experience, the innovative and progressive vision that began with Morley and continues to the present. The vibrant and inspiring dialog continues, and it’s open to us all.

Special thanks to Kara Kirk whose research and thesis project provided many of the facts and information on Grace McCann Morley included here.

This story appeared in the May issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.