Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Grace McCann Morley

While researching California women artists, I came across Grace Morley. She is one of several women during the 1930s (e.g., Gertrude Whitney, Juliana Force, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in New York) who recognized the value of American modern art. Morley was the first director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which she managed for 23 years beginning in 1935.

Although women started MOMA and the Whitney in New York, and hired male management, it was men in SF who founded SFMOMA and selected Morley. She was originally from California and had already established her credentials as expert in modern art. Typical of the day, her salary was $2,400 a year, compared with $9,000 for Alfred Barr, the head of MOMA. Morley worked well with Barr toward getting traveling shows from his museum on exhibit in San Francisco. Morley was quick to create and curate shows that left SF for other museums.

Morley was gay, though "coming out" was not in practice then. The fact of her having female companions was well known, yet not an issue in her management. Thus anyone interested in GLBT history would benefit from exploring her life and relations.

Morley's renown is significant beyond establishing SFMOMA as a major museum in its own right. She was vocal in explaining modern art and encouraging the support of contemporary artists. Her skills in museum management led to her becoming Chair of the Museum Division of UNESCO, which led to the International Council of Museums. She also served as founding editor of that body's professional journal, Museum. These are only a few of her accomplishments in the 20th century art world.

Several years after quitting SFMOMA, Morley left San Francisco for India, where she spent her final years running the National Museum. She was unhappy, she later claimed, that the locals would look at art but not spend money on art nor help living artists. She died there at age 84.

There is yet no published biography on Morley. Suzanne Reiss conducted an oral history for the Bancroft Library in 1960. Kara Kirk wrote her Master's Thesis on Morley for Stanford University. It's about time someone went into the archives and gave Morley her due.

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