Thursday, April 29, 2010

SFMOMA's 75th Anniversary 1: Grace McCann Morley

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary with a rummaging of the permanent collection separated out into four separate exhibitions on three floors.

Though the exhibitions feel a bit slapdash in their execution, there are plenty of items of interest on display, including some gorgeous Diebenkorn Santa Monica "Ocean Park" paintings from the 1950s such as the one above and below.

If you happen to look at a Google map in "Satellite" view with a legend of about 2,000 feet, it is remarkable how much most of the country looks like an epic, continuous Diebenkorn painting. The question is how did he manage to see it fifty years before Google maps ever existed?

The major revelation of the anniversary show is that the founding director from 1934 to 1957 was Grace McCann Morley, above, a brilliant lesbian schooled at Mills College and Smith, who created an absolutely vibrant institution.

Her focus was on instructing the public in a non-condescending way and supporting living artists, such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo among many others.

She was an early proponent of industrial design as art, and the Olivetti typewriters with their great ad campaigns is a fun example.

Grace McCann Morley was run out of her job and position in 1957 by rich, powerful museum trustees, if one reads between the lines, and she's been written out of history. It's a bit like that "Northern Exposure" TV episode where somebody does a history project wondering why the town is named "Cecily" and it turns out to be an epic tale of a heroic lesbian couple who helped to found the town.

From the slim "Personal History" section about Ms. Morley at Wikipedia is this two-paragraph gem:

"Dr Morley started her career in Cincinnati in 1930, but is best remembered for her years in San Francisco and her second career in India. She formed some passionate friendships with women during this time.

For the last twenty years, she shared an apartment with a retired Indian Air Force officer and his wife, who became her Indian family, and it was there she died at the age of 84. They believe she had converted to Buddhism at some point in time. Dr Morley's body was cremated in the Indian tradition, and her ashes immersed in a holy river."
For more info, check out California Women and Nancy Ewart's essays.


namastenancy said...

Mike - thanks for the shout out but the link to my blog doesn't work. If anybody is interested, here's the URL:

I was thinking about her when I read about the evening parties that the museum is hosting these days, trying to bring in art lovers. But what they get are a lot of people who simply want to party and could care less about the art. I wrote about that and there's a similar essay in one of the NY Times Bay Area blogs. The museum should study Ms. Morley's career and tactics more as she was the best director that the museum ever had. I wish I'd met her but I think that she left SF the year that I came here. I will always regret that I didn't know about her earlier.

sfmike said...

Dear Nancy: I fixed the broken link. Ms. Morley does sound like she was an amazing character even beyond her work in San Francisco, starting magazines, joining the early UNESCO, organizing the Indian National Museum. It is odd that she's so obscure a figure in San Francisco, but according to one of the articles I read, the manner of her departure made her so bitter that she never wanted to have anything to do with the city again.

mary ann said...

Fabulous reporting, SFMike. (I had an orange boy cat once named Uncle Junior.) I'm glad Dr. Morley is getting some long overdue thanks.
Will you be going to the Oakland Museum? I hope so. Oh, and I have a friend who is an ENUMERATOR out in Pleasanton. She is working the NRFUs as I type...

sfmike said...

Dear Mary Ann: I will be going to the Oakland Museum at some point because I love their California-centric art collection, as opposed to SFMOMA's "trying to keep up with the Guggenheims" approach. It will be a little while, because right now I'm getting ready for my first NRFU interview. The excitement mounts.

sfmike said...

Dear Nancy: I will be going back to write a little about the Luc Tuymans special exhibit, which I found fascinating and (intentionally) disturbing in about equal measure. And I'd forgotten about the press office, but they've actually been offering me invites to previews that I've been too busy to attend while being a slave for the census.

AphotoAday said...

Great coverage, Mike...