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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.

The Democratic Picture: Grace McCann Morley and Photography in the San Francisco Museum of Art

Moschovi, Alexandra (2021) The Democratic Picture: Grace McCann Morley and Photography in the San Francisco Museum of Art. The Classic.

Item Type: Article


In October 1936, a year after the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMA) opened its doors to the public, its first Director, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, would write to Roy Stryker, Chief of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration, Washington D.C., stating that her museum was ‘anxious’ to stage an exhibition of Miss Dorothea Lange’s photographs, the negatives of which, produced only a few months earlier, were kept at the RA archives. At the time, SFMA was the only museum on the West Coast dedicated to modern art and one of the first American museums to recognise photography as art, with acquisitions of works by contemporary Bay Area photographers and a range of photography exhibitions since 1935. Drawing on Morley’s unpublished correspondence with photographers and artists between 1935 and 1958 and through an analysis of photography exhibitions and collecting initiatives at SFMA, this paper seeks to map Morley’s distinct vision of photography as an egalitarian, inclusive art.
A great believer in the social value of contemporary art and a fervent advocate of cultural democracy, Morley was clear on the role that photography could play in a museum of modern art that fostered public outreach and participatory learning. Correspondence with Ansel Adams reveals that Morley was sceptical about concentrating on ‘pure’ art photography, the kind that Adams was concurrently promoting at the newly established Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as Vice-Chairman of the Photography Board. Morley argued that it was indeed important to raise the standards of photography, but did not want to exclude vernacular or popular photography from the museum. Amateur photography, she argued, as if predicting photography’s new judgement seat in the new millennium, was ‘a good avenue for bringing people in contact with some of the basic principles of art in general and yet allowing them a certain amount of freedom of choice and where they could exercise their minor talents’ (Morley, letter to Ansel Adams, 3 August 1943).
During her twenty-four-year career at SFMA, Morley’s progressive vision, widening participation strategies and educational mission were instrumental in incorporating ‘the edge of creative art of our time’, new media such as Photography, Film and Television, popular culture, diversity and experiential learning in the art museum. Yet, despite her successes, Morley faced very many challenges, financial, ideological and personal, no less due to sex discrimination. In 1958, Morley resigned unwilling to sustain progressively ‘unfavourable’ conditions, which were, as Morley scholar Kristy Phillips (2015) has claimed, equally fuelled by certain SFMA Trustees’ unease with her ‘status as a single woman in a powerful “man’s” job’ as much as her ‘mannish’ appearance in tailored suits and debated sexuality against an increasingly hostile climate towards queer social life in 1950s San Francisco.
This paper endeavours to recognise Morley’s contribution to the institutionalisation of photography in the art museum, which was, like women’s photographic work, largely marginalised in what was for decades a male-dominated field.

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Uncontrolled Keywords: San Francisco Museum of Art, Grace McCann Morley, photography, art museum, Ansel Adams, exhibitions, Beaumont Newhall, Museum of Modern Art (New York)
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Depositing User: Alexandra Moschovi


Item ID: 14445
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ORCID for Alexandra Moschovi: ORCID iD

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Date Deposited: 27 Jan 2022 14:24
Last Modified: 27 Jan 2022 14:24