Grace Morley

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Grace Louise McCann Morley (November 3, 1900 – January 8, 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, its third highest civilian award, in 1982.[3]


Morley studied French literature at University of California, Berkeley, receiving a master's degree in 1923, and earned a doctorate in art and literature from the University of Paris in 1926. In 1929 she attended a Harvard University summer session in art history connected with the Fogg Art Museum.[4]


From 1927 to 1930 she taught advanced French at Goucher College. Her experience at Harvard led to her hiring as general curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Art in 1930.[1] In late 1934 she was hired as the curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, slated to open in early 1935. Eventually her title changed to director.

In her first years at the museum, she organized exhibitions 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.[5] Time magazine wrote about her in her twentieth year with the museum,[6] and again on her resignation.[7]

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.[8]

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 was born in Berkeley, California, in 1900. She had health issues that isolated her from other children and led her parents to try different Bay Area climate zones, settling in St. Helena, California, in 1909, where she finally started school.[4] 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.[4] She also developed an early interest in art history, but when she studied at the University of California, Berkeley, there were virtually no classes in the subject, so she majored in French and Greek. In 1923, she wrote her master’s thesis at UC Berkeley in French on the poetics of Aristotle.[4]

In June 1933 she married S. Griswold Morley, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley. The marriage did not last long (it became clear that she was a lesbian), but it positioned her in the Bay Area when the San Francisco Museum of Art board was looking for a curator.[9]

Morley 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 email 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.[10]

In India, under the supervision of Prime Minister Jawawarlal Nehru she opened the country's first major art museum.[1] She was awarded the Padma Bhushan 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.[11] 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.


Morley received honorary doctorates from Mills College, Smith College and California College of Arts and Crafts, and she was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honour.[1][12]


Research fellowships in her honor are awarded by ICOM India Trust each year.[13][14][15] 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.[16] 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.[17][18]

Berit Potter, assistant professor of art history/museum and gallery practices at Humboldt State University, 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.[19]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Morley, Grace (2005). Indian Sculpture. Roli Books. ISBN 9788174363527.
  • Karl Morris; Retrospective by Grace L. McCann Morley, American Federation of Arts. 1960.
  • Morley, Grace. Museums Today. Baroda: University of Baroda, 1981.
  • Morley, Grace. Art in Museums. Baroda: University of Baroda, 1963.
  • Morley, Grace, and Suzanne B. Reiss. Art, Artists, Museums, and the San Francisco Museum of Art; Oral History Interview. Berkeley: University of California, Bancroft Library, Regional Oral History Office, 1960.


  1. ^ a b c d 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. May 17, 2018. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d "Grace L. McCann Morley: Art, Artists, Museums, and the SF Museum of Art" (PDF). 1960.
  5. ^ "Obituary: Grace McCann Morley". San Francisco Chronicle. January 10, 1985.
  6. ^ "Art: Twenty Years of Grace". Time. February 28, 1955. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007.
  7. ^ "Art: 23 Years of Grace". Time. July 14, 1958. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007.
  8. ^ Morley, Grace (2005). Indian Sculpture. Roli Books Private Limited. ISBN 9788174363527.
  9. ^ "Honors for Mrs. Morley". Cincinnati Enquirer. November 21, 1934.
  10. ^ Straus, Tamara (January 10, 2010). "Grace Morley - forgotten pioneer behind SFMOMA". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 15, 2022.
  11. ^ Museum. UNESCO. 1985. p. 65.
  12. ^ "Honorary Degrees | Smith College". Smith College. Archived from the original on February 29, 2020. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  13. ^ "Относно: ICOM India Trust to award 5 Grace Morley Research Fellowships for ICOM Milano 2016 to ICOM individual members in Asia-Pacific". ICOM Bulgaria. February 9, 2015. Archived from the original on April 2, 2020. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  14. ^ "ICOM 2004 Seoul: "Museums and Intangible Heritage"" (PDF). ICOM. 2003. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  15. ^ "CIMCIM Bulletin" (PDF). August 2000. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  16. ^ "SFMOMA | Membership | Estate + Planned Gifts: A Lasting Legacy". June 7, 2007. Archived from the original on June 7, 2007.
  17. ^ "At SFMOMA, Andrea Geyer Taps into Founding Principles of the Museum". KQED Arts. Retrieved March 25, 2017.
  18. ^ "To Those Who Have Eyes To See". SFMOMA. Retrieved March 25, 2017.
  19. ^ Potter, Berit (June 2017). "Grace McCann Morley: Defending and Diversifying Modern Art". SF Moma. Archived from the original on October 29, 2019. Retrieved April 2, 2020.

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