Morley and the SFMOMA community quickly came to their defense. Morley recalled, “One of the illustrations of what . . . the San Francisco Museum of Art represents is that controversy over the Refregier murals. . . . That’s really an interesting episode in San Francisco art history.”5 She wrote to the committee with a passionate statement in defense of the work, and solicited support from colleagues across the nation, including Nelson Rockefeller and MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. SFMOMA became San Francisco’s central point for rallying support around the murals. “And that,” Morley said, “is one of the things that a museum, especially a museum of contemporary art . . . must consider part of its function—to take a stand on the art questions of the day, to furnish information, to give leadership.”6 For her, Refregier’s murals represented an indispensable example of San Francisco’s artistic heritage and development.
Born in Berkeley in 1900, Morley attended the University of California, Berkeley, and then received a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she earned a doctoral degree in French literature and art. When she returned to California in 1933, after serving as the first general curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, she described the Bay Area as a culturally remote part of the United States, barely touched by the avant-garde until Diego Rivera painted his first US murals there in 1930 and 1931. Rivera’s presence inspired a robust mural movement, which intensified thanks to Roosevelt’s federally sponsored art programs. Through SFMOMA’s early exhibitions, regularly organized around important donations made by patrons such as Albert Bender and William Gerstle, Morley emphasized the significance of Rivera’s local impact.7 In a 1936 conference paper she asserted, “If I had to name the art in which California leads in the moment, I believe I should say fresco.”8
According to Morley, the mural movement represented a cultural awakening, and specifically the birth of modern art in San Francisco: “I think it should be noted that [in the Bay Area], you had a more extensive development of mural painting in general, and especially of fresco painting, than elsewhere.”9 When artists and colleagues visited San Francisco in the 1940s, she took them on tours to see the Coit Tower murals, the murals and mosaics by Hilaire Hiler and Sargent Johnson at Aquatic Park, and Rivera’s Making of a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and Allegory of California at the Stock Exchange (now the City Club of San Francisco). Morley believed that San Francisco’s murals represented a crucial part of the region’s artistic development.10
Refregier’s commission played a vital role within that history. The murals of Coit Tower, which faced censorship in 1934 for Communist content, were the first PWAP-sponsored project in San Francisco.11 Refregier’s commission was the last, and according to Morley, “the finest.”12 She feared that the destruction of the latter represented something more than a threat to San Francisco’s art historical legacy: “There were indications that if these murals were destroyed, a movement to remove from public buildings all art good and bad, would sweep the country . . . based on prejudice and on opposition to contemporary art in general. . . . That kind of hysterical prejudice . . . had to be stopped. We felt it here.”13
Saving Refregier’s murals meant defending all modern art and artists from censorship and persecution. Morley often used her directorial role as a platform to speak out against the prejudice faced by modern art and artists. When Kathleen Carroll from the New York design firm McMillen Inc. wrote to her, inquiring about arranging an exhibition of work by “Negro artists, painters and sculptors,” Morley informed Carroll that SFMOMA’s exhibitions and events were not segregated: African American artists such as Sargent Johnson and Thelma Johnson Streat, both influential local figures, regularly attended events and exhibited their work in group shows at SFMOMA.14 Streat, a dancer as well as a painter, also debuted her choreography at SFMOMA in 1946.15 When SFMOMA had opened in the Veterans Building in 1935, the institution possessed no funds for acquisitions and relied upon patrons for donations; Albert Bender donated ten drawings and sculptures by Johnson, establishing a strong presence for the artist in the permanent collection.16