Morley was a perfect fit for the San Francisco job: a California native with impressive academic credentials, international exposure to modern art, and firsthand experience in state-of-the-art museum practice. She studied French literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and then traveled abroad to earn a PhD in French literature and art at the Sorbonne. It was in Paris that Morley received her first comprehensive exposure to modern art, attending exhibitions of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Raoul Dufy, artists she would later champion in San Francisco. After finishing her degree Morley took a job teaching French language and literature at Goucher College in Baltimore but was soon recruited to take on art history as well. For training she was sent to a summer course for art professionals at Harvard,3 and soon thereafter she was hired as a curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. She returned to the Bay Area in 1933 and a year and a half later was hired to direct the fledgling San Francisco Museum of Art, only months before it was set to open. Morley quickly assembled a small staff and got down to work.
The inaugural shows were an eclectic array, a result of the compressed time frame and meager resources: the fifty-fifth Annual of the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA), French prints, gothic and renaissance tapestries, ancient Chinese sculptures, and modern French paintings. To some extent the schedule was dictated by what was available to show, but Morley was also quite deliberate in her effort to balance the program to appease the more conservative trustees and critical members of the public who were not prepared for a steady diet of new art. Even progressive trustees, those who were sympathetic to what Morley called her “modern tendencies,” needed slow nurturing and guidance. Equally important was the strategic inclusion of work by local artists, many of whom as members of SFAA had played a major role in establishing the museum and had a vested interest in its activities. During Morley’s tenure, roughly one-third of the museum’s gallery space was dedicated to Bay Area artists.
The mingling of modern art with material meant to appeal to a broader audience would continue for the first five years of Morley’s directorship—and at a pace that is astonishing. During the first year alone, she and her small staff mounted seventy exhibitions; they then showed between seventy-four and one hundred each year through 1941, when World War II intervened. Morley’s intention was to get the public into the habit of visiting frequently by making sure there was always something new on display. To increase the odds, she also took the unusual step of keeping the museum open late, until ten in the evening, six days a week.
Commenting on this innovation in the local paper, Morley lets her populist sympathies shine through: “Museums have long dreamed of open evenings, but virtually none in America have ever taken the step. . . . They felt that art was for the leisure class only. We are embarking on this new and democratic experiment in hopes that we will build up a regular following of art lovers whose days are occupied.”4 Open evenings had been the brainchild of trustee Timothy Pflueger, a leading Bay Area architect, but Morley had embraced his idea with gusto, recognizing the benefits of providing convenient access to the museum for day laborers, office workers, and artists alike.5
Those evening visitors were in for what today seems quite a feast. Morley generated a systematic introduction to European modernism through exhibitions by a who’s who of artists we now view as canonical: Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Cézanne, Dufy, Gauguin, Vassily Kandinksy, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Míro, Picasso, Yves Tanguy. Many of these shows came on loan from galleries on the East Coast, while Morley originated others, such as the Matisse exhibition she mounted in 1936, which drew heavily upon the holdings of local collectors Michael and Sarah Stein. 6 There were also a number of important exhibitions borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, which in the 1930s maintained an active program of circulating exhibitions that were often a natural fit for SFMA.
In keeping with her vision of the modern museum as a site for experimentation, Morley presented the latest developments in a wide variety of media, including photography, experimental film, architecture, and landscape design. There were also exhibitions of what were termed “special phases of art”—a numismatic exhibition, a book fair, a fine printing display—which were of particular interest to groups who might not be regular museumgoers.7 She mounted shows exploring the “art” of everyday life, meant to demonstrate that art was not only a painting that hung on a gallery wall but was also to be found in simple, soundly designed objects and materials that were often readily available to the average consumer: cutlery, ceramics, textiles, furniture, and the like.8