The Democratic Picture: Grace McCann Morley and Photography in the San Francisco Museum of Art BY Alexandra Moschovi / The Classic

Dr. Grace McCann Morley preparing for the inaugural exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art in January 1935, courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Archives.

The San Francisco Museum of Art1 opened its doors on the top floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building in 1935. A year later, in October 1936, its first Director, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, would write to the Resettlement Administration in Washington D.C. being “anxious” to stage an exhibition of Miss Dorothea Lange’s photographs that were produced only the year before in the context of the Farm Security Administration project.2

Morley was admittedly a museum director extraordinaire.[Fig.1] During the twenty-four years of her directorship, the San Francisco Museum of Art, not only grew its collection and exhibition and education programs despite limited funding and wartime hardships. It also became a leading advocate for modern art on the isolated West Coast. A great believer in the social value of contemporary art and advocate of cultural democracy, Morley argued that the prime function of museums was “to help as broad and as large a public possible to understand, appreciate, and use of art of its own time”.3 True to her words, the director sought to open the Museum to different publics as well as contemporary artists of every feather, also accommodating new media, such as photography and film, to embrace the cutting edge of creative practice. Morley expanded the field of modern art to include work from Latin America and gave female artists a voice in the American art museum with forty solo exhibitions organized in the first five years of her tenure alone.4

This article explores Morley’s contribution to the institutionalization of photography in the art museum, which in 1930s North America was still a male-dominated field.

To read the full article, please go to the direct link.

To watch Alexandra Moschovi’s paper presentation at Fast Forward conference at Tate Modern in 2019 on the same subject matter, please go here.