Grace Morley

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Grace Louise McCann Morley (1900–1985) was a museologist of global influence.[1] She was the first director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (formerly the San Francisco Museum of Art) and held the position for 23 years starting in 1935. In an interview with Thomas Tibbs, she is credited with being a major force in encouraging young American artists.[2] The Government of India awarded her the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, in 1982.[3]


Morley studied French Literature at UC Berkeley and earned a doctorate degree in Art History from a fellowship with the University of Paris (1923), a D.Litt. doctoral degree from the Sorbonne University of Paris France in Art and Literature (1926), an honorary degree from Mills College (1937), and an honorary "Doctor of Humane Letters" degree from Smith in 1957.


Her first general curating position was at the Cincinnati Museum of Art in Ohio at 1930.

In her first years at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art she organized three shows dedicated to Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse. By the 1940s and 50s she was holding 100 shows per year, many from the New York MoMA and Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in Manhattan. She also established the first gallery tours for any museum in the West as well as art history courses, a public art library, an art rental gallery, the first film program at an American museum, "Art in Cinema", and the television series, "Art in Your Life".[4] Time Magazine carried an article in her twentieth year with the museum,[5] and then another article on her resignation.[6]

During these years, she was active in the art world in the US. She was Second Vice-President, American Federation of Arts, 1939; Counsellor for Arts at the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, 1941; a Member of the Committee of the Fine Arts Buildings of the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and Director of Pacific House 1940, a Member of the Committee of Experts on the Arts, State Department, 1940-1945. Between 1946-1949, she took leave from the San Francisco Museum of Art, and became Consultant for Museums at UNESCO Preparatory Commission, and then as the Head of its Museums Division.

She was active in the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and was the Head of the ICOM Regional Agency for South and South-East Asia from 1967 to 1978.

She authored a number of articles on Contemporary Art, and on Latin American Civilizations, and was the subject of a book edited by Dipa Chaudhuri.[7]

She moved to India in 1960, and remained there until her death in 1985. She was the Founder Director of the National Museum in New Delhi and was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Indian government.

Personal life[edit]

Morley did not attend school until she was about 10 years old. She excelled in school and was an exceptional student. Her high school, St. Helena High School, did not offer French classes, therefore, she decided to teach herself French. In 1923, she wrote her master’s thesis at UC Berkeley in French on the poetics of Aristotle.

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. From 1946 to 1949, Morley worked for UNESCO in Germany as a consultant with French, American, and British authorities. She helped with theft and the return of multiple artworks. In 1949, she returned to San Francisco as a popular art star. Due to her fame and travels to Brazil, Chile, and Greece, the San Francisco Museum of Art became very well known across the world. However, in 1958, she decided to leave San Francisco along with her ties to the museum due to disagreements with the board of directors. "After being forced to leave S.F. in 1958, she cut off ties with most of her friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, which is one reason her memory has been somewhat buried," Morley scholar Kristy Phillips wrote in a 2006 e-mail on "She felt betrayed here by the museum and its trustees and at one point declared that she wanted to forget S.F. completely." In 1959, she served as the assistant director of the Guggenheim Museum before she decided to move to India in 1960.

In India, under the supervision of Prime Minister Jawawarlal Nehru she opened the country's first major art museum.[8] She was awarded the Padma Bhush award, which is given to civilians who have contributed greatly in a specific line of work that is valued in India. In her case, it was due to her knowledge in art history and expertise on museums.

For the last twenty years of her life, 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. Morley's body was cremated in the Indian tradition, and her ashes immersed in a holy river.


Research fellowships in her honor are awarded by ICOM India Trust each year.[9] The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has established the Grace McCann Morley Legacy Society for donors who provide for the museum in their estate plans.[10] In India, the National Museum Institute holds an annual Dr Grace Morley Memorial Seminar.

Artist Andrea Geyer produced an exhibition and performance devoted to Morley's legacy at SFMOMA in 2017.[11][12]

Berit Potter, Visiting Faculty of History and Theory of Contemporary Art at SFAI, is writing a book about Morley’s impact on the development of modern art in California and role as an early advocate for global perspectives in the study of contemporary art called Grace McCann Morley and the Origins of Global Contemporary Art.[13][14]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Morley, Grace. Indian Sculpture. Roli Books. ISBN 9788174363527.
  • Karl Morris; Retrospective by Grace L. McCann Morley, American Federation of Arts. 1960.


  1. ^ Straus, Tamara. "Grace Morley - forgotten pioneer behind SFMOMA". SF Gate.
  2. ^ Tibbs, Thomas (1996). "Oral history interview with Thomas Tibbs, 1996 March 19-May 9".
  3. ^ "Padma Awards". Padma Awards. Government of India. 2018-05-17. Retrieved 2018-05-17.
  4. ^ "Obituary: Grace McCann Morley". San Francisco Chronicle. January 10, 1985.
  5. ^ "Art: Twenty Years of Grace". Time. 1955-02-28. ISSN 0040-781X.
  6. ^ "Art: 23 Years of Grace". Time. 1958-07-14. ISSN 0040-781X.
  7. ^ Morley, Grace (2005). Indian Sculpture. Roli Books Private Limited. ISBN 9788174363527.
  8. ^ "Grace Morley - forgotten pioneer behind SFMOMA". SFGate. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "SFMOMA | Membership | Estate + Planned Gifts: A Lasting Legacy". 2007-06-07.
  11. ^ "At SFMOMA, Andrea Geyer Taps into Founding Principles of the Museum". KQED Arts. Retrieved 2017-03-25.
  12. ^ "To Those Who Have Eyes To See". SFMOMA. Retrieved 2017-03-25.
  13. ^ Anonymous (2015-07-06). "Berit Potter". University of San Francisco. Retrieved 2017-03-25.
  14. ^ "SFAI". Retrieved 2017-03-25.

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