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'Photography, cultural democracy and gender politics at the San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art'

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Dr Alexandra Moschovi’s Associate Professorial Lecture will be held on Wednesday 5 May, 4pm - 5pm.

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 contact Roy Stryker, Chief of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration, Washington D.C., stating that her museum was eager 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.

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 photographer 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.

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 the 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, resulting, in 1958, in her resignation.

This paper endeavours to recognise Morley’s contribution to the institutionalisation of photography in the art museum, which was, like women’s photographic work at the time, largely marginalised in what was for decades a male-dominated field.


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