Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SFMOMA: Amazing Grace McCann Morley

 When I started writing my articles on the lack of women artists at SFMOMA, it never occurred to me one of the most striking omissions was that of Grace Morley, the first director of SFMOMA (1935-1958). She built the museum from the ground up, bought the paintings that provided the keystone of the collection, defended her purchases and created a vibrant place for culture. I've lived in San Francisco for forty years, am a practicing artist and an avid museum goer and I'd never heard of her.

She was the key figure in the development of the museum, establishing the SFMA (the early name of SF MOMA) as a major American museum. She also founded UNCECO's museum division after WW II and after leaving San Francisco, moved to India where where she helped found Indian's National Museum.

Not only that, but she got paid less than her male peers. According to Kara Kirk, who is the only one to write anything in depth on Morley, her starting salary was $2,400 a year, just under half of the sum being paid at the time to the director of the Minneapolis Museum of Art -- and a fraction of Alfred Barr's $9,000 starting salary at MoMA.

When she started at the museum, she had one assistant, 98 prints and a handful of oil paintings. In 1955, when the article was written, the museum had 3500 members, 4000 works, a full schedule of films and lectures and a TV show (!). (Time Magazine).

Just three years after the Time article was written,  she was forced to leave San Francisco.  "She cut off ties with most of her friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, which is one reason her memory has been somewhat buried," Morley scholar Kristy Phillips wrote in a 2006 e-mail on "She felt betrayed here by the museum and its trustees and at one point declared that she wanted to forget S.F. completely."

Even if she was betrayed by the institution that she had nurtured for so many years, there was no reason - other than the ingrained sexism in our culture -- for her to be so completely forgotten. Unfortunately, she is not the first woman of achievement to be left out of the history books. We should honor Grace, who with grace, fought, brought, taught and built the core of the museum that still graces our city today. 
The story of how she brought the Pollock piece, one of the star's of SFMOMA's collection:
SF MOMA blog:
Twenty Years of Grace:,9171,861242,00.html
Includes links to Kara Kirk's interview with Morley and an article on her work in India:

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