Wide Open Publics: Tracing Grace McCann Morley’s San Francisco

by , August 2017

Andrea Geyer, Revolt, They Said, 2012–ongoing (detail); courtesy the artist and Parque Galeria, Mexico City.

In the cab on our way to SFMOMA’s archives in South San Francisco, I talked with Andrea Geyer about how it would feel to find something to substantiate the rumors about Grace McCann Morley, the museum’s founding director (1935–58), which circulated during her time in San Francisco. It was June 2016. Geyer, who lives in New York, was in town for a short research trip, and we’d been hopping from place to place, meeting with archivists, professors, and other members of the Women in Contemporary Art Network (WICAN). I was preparing to spend the summer as Geyer’s remote accomplice on all things Morley — a surrogate set of eyes dispatched to various Bay Area libraries and archives, sending research notes back East, until she returned in the late fall to install her exhibition To Those Who Have Eyes to See.

This would be the latest chapter in Geyer’s ongoing project, begun in 2012, to recover a forgotten history of women as key figures in the founding of modern art museums in the United States, and to demonstrate their connections to other underrepresented social and political narratives. The first iteration had been a kind of provocation. Strategically focusing on the category “woman” in the archive of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Geyer unsettled the institution’s sense of itself. Through her work Revolt, They Said, she revealed a gendered historiographical “blind spot” to be not simply the product of archival lack (although that was an issue), but also a consequence of a particular mode of asking questions. Part of our work together was to replicate that gesture in SFMOMA’s archives while keeping an eye out for hints of Morley’s life outside the museum walls.

Mary Le Moyne, Daphne Dosch-Fleuret, and Dr. Grace McCann Morley pictured in the News-Call Bulletin, June 29, 1942. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Geyer was interested in Morley’s accomplishments but was particularly curious to know if Morley was indeed queer, and what knowing more about the form of her affections would tell us about her work, her politics, and her resignation. When Morley left the museum in 1958, it was on ambiguously contentious terms. In an oral history interview she spoke opaquely, saying that she “could furnish a complicated explanation” but that “essentially, and in simple terms, it was because I had found conditions increasingly unfavorable, from about 1955, and they finally made it quite impossible for me to continue to carry the development of the museum forward according to the standards of the past, and I had to remain faithful to those.”1

In a recently published article on Morley’s career, scholar Kristy Phillips describes the context of her resignation as fraught with “personality- and class-based conflicts” at the museum, while also noting that “despite [Morley’s] successes, several museum trustees and members of the SFMA Women’s Board . . . remained uncomfortable with her ‘abrupt’ manner and her oft-debated sexuality.” Phillips asserts that the latter debate “was fueled by her status as a single woman in a powerful ‘man’s’ job, and her ‘mannish’ appearance that included serious ‘tailored suits, sensible shoes, and . . . hair straight back in a bun.’”2

Correspondence of the Office of the Director from the SFMOMA archives.

In our research, Geyer and I were looking for some relationship between Morley’s work from 1935 to 1958 and the way non-heteronormative sexualities were lived out in San Francisco during those same years. We wondered if weaving these threads together would provide insight into the social and political transformations that made Morley’s work at the museum so energetic and prolific at first, and later somehow untenable.

We started by going through her papers methodically, looking for traces of her personal life. We were not the first to do so. At least three other scholars, including Phillips, spent extensive time with these records, and none of them came back with a clear answer to the question of whether Morley ever identified as a lesbian.3 We paid particular attention to her letters to other women — artists, donors, artists’ wives, women’s board members, fellow museum workers — and noticed her tone soften at times. Still, despite her formidable public persona, Morley was a private individual, and we held no illusion that her cataloged and preserved work would provide anything more than a fractured and incomplete sketch of her life.

Snapshots of Tommy's Place, Grace Miller Papers, GLC 69, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

To understand her context, our visits to the San Francisco Public Library and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society were more fruitful. There we learned much about the kinds of cultural spaces being cultivated by queer women in San Francisco in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. We also came across two pivotal texts. The first was Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2003). Boyd’s history skillfully tacks back and forth between efforts to police and surveil queerness in San Francisco and the various techniques developed by queer communities looking to eke out spaces for collective life. Rather than starting with the gay and lesbian civil rights movement of the 1960s, Boyd considers how earlier efforts to establish and maintain gay and lesbian bars cultivated diverse working-class cultures of resistance that set the stage for the more mainstream, individual-rights-oriented movements to come.

From 1934 to 1954, North Beach was a concentrated site of lesbian social life in the city, with twenty-one lesbian bars operating at various points. Boyd chronicles the unique emergence of “lesbian territory” in North Beach from 1934 to 1954 and examines how “the incorporation of lesbian and transgender entertainments into San Francisco’s tourist economy opened up a space in which lesbian culture could grow.”4 Bars and nightclubs hired amateur and professional performers to dress in drag and put on cabaret shows that titillated outsiders, and also created opportunities for local patrons to exist in butch and femme attire among friends in public.

Flyer from Tommy’s Place, Grace Miller Papers, GLC 69, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Mona’s Club 440, San Francisco’s first lesbian nightclub, opened in 1934, one year before Morley joined the San Francisco Museum of Art (as it was called in her time).5 Courting a bohemian clientele, it offered nightclub-style entertainment “where women dressed as men and sang parodies of popular songs,” and “marketed itself as the place ‘Where Girls Will Be Boys.’”6 Twenty-one lesbian bars operated in North Beach over the next two decades, including the Paper Doll, the Chi-Chi Club, Tommy’s Place, 12 Adler Place, the Copper Lantern, the Anxious Asp, the Front, and Our Club.7 Boyd notes that “while they were not all open at the same time, between 1949 and 1959 there were always at least four and up to seven bars or nightclubs that lesbians frequented within a few blocks of each other.”8 This concentration of social life, Boyd insists, “opened up the possibility of new life choices” beyond traditional forms of domesticity and compulsory heterosexuality.9 Images from Mona’s and other venues make abundantly clear that Morley, with her tailored suits and bun, was not alone in refusing to adhere to conventional standards of femininity.

Snapshots of a house party, Grace Miller Papers, GLC 69, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

We will probably never know to what extent Morley may have moved through the city’s contemporary queer social worlds. Perhaps she was not openly gay because it simply wasn’t possible for someone in her position at that time. “Coming out,” itself, didn’t become common practice until later. Geyer and I also came to suspect that she didn’t identify herself in this way because of her sociopolitical orientation toward her work. In her oral histories, she repeatedly displaces attention away from herself and toward the team, the historical moment, the intellectual milieu. Her work was about its context, made possible by its context, and was for the public, not herself. The public she envisioned and worked for was not organized around sameness, but difference, with a shared commitment to particular democratic values and practices.

In that regard, the second text that was crucial to our understanding of Morley’s time was Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (2013). Turner traces the emergence of a particular kind of political vision that coalesced when, in direct opposition to fascism, intellectuals, social scientists, artists, and directors of cultural institutions “began to imagine an American society that would acknowledge and tolerate differences in race, sexual preference and cultural style.” Through experiments with emerging media and curatorial practices, their goal was to create “the intellectual foundation for a mode of communication and a vision of an egalitarian world that would long outlive the war.”10

For her part, Morley was constantly negotiating to cultivate and maintain the San Francisco Museum of Art as an egalitarian public space and cultural beacon in the face of social and political pressures. Specifically, her commitment to keeping the museum open until ten o’clock at night required significant effort and political will.

Morley believed the museum served a crucial social function in times of war, and that it was vital to increase access especially “for those interested in art, who might possibly have a day or so in San Francisco before being shipped overseas.”11 In her Smithsonian oral history interview in 1982, she recalled what it took to sustain late-night access to the museum during World War II, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

At that time, the San Francisco Museum of Art had unusual hours for a museum, opening at twelve noon and remaining open until ten in the evening on weekday nights, a period that allowed attendance by those busy in the daytime, and a great many activities were carried on in the evening. The exhibition galleries were, of course, brilliantly lighted. As bombing of the city was feared, a rigorous program of blackout was imposed. As the museum’s galleries had skylights, one of the first necessities was to find a way to black them out. Otherwise, the museum would have had to close in the evening. Indeed, the authorities did issue a directive that the museum should close at dusk. However, even before the directive could be implemented, the staff found a way to block out the skylights so that a majority of the galleries could be used in the evening and it was possible to get the permission of the authorities to remain open. . . . The blackout meant, of course, curtains, and very dense ones, on all the office windows and on the entryway so that no little arrow of light, no chink, could be discovered. This made it possible to continue operating the San Francisco Museum of Art throughout the war period.12

Morley’s tenacity and creativity as a museum professional, her understanding of the civic, social and even spiritual power of art, and her commitment to the creation and nurturing of a public for the art on view, led her to question, engage with, and ultimately work around restrictions developed by the authorities during the war.

Although Morley does not show up in either Turner’s or Boyd’s accounts of San Francisco, she lived in close proximity to the social and intellectual worlds depicted in both books. She hovered on the periphery of the intellectual circles profiled in Turner’s work, corresponding with exiled Bauhaus artists in Chicago and New York, and spending time with László Moholy-Nagy during his summer teaching sessions at Mills College in 1940. During most of her time in the city, she maintained an apartment on Green Street, a very short walk from the vibrant but intensely surveilled scene Boyd describes in Wide Open Town.13

In stark contrast to Morley’s wartime museum work, there was far less possibility of the authorities recognizing the civic value of lesbian bars and nightclubs, which were routinely patrolled by the city police, the California Board of Equalization (the state’s liquor control agency), and the US military police.14 In 1938, during a routine sweep of Mona’s, Sergeant Glen Hughes reportedly couldn’t tell “which were the men and which were the women,” and Mona was arrested and charged with “keeping a disorderly house.”15 Raids, shutdowns, and public trials intensified over the 1940s and 1950s as Cold War–era conservatism took root and city agencies adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward emerging queer communities. Yet these circumstances also inspired new modes of collective action and resistance. Although gay and lesbian bars faced constant harassment, having places to gather allowed people to share strategies for subverting regulatory pressure and surveillance.

The pressures on lesbian social life escalated in the mid-1950s. A raid on Tommy’s Place in 1954, and the subsequent high-profile trial, sparked “citywide panic” over San Francisco’s growing “sexual deviate problem.”16 The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) expanded the definition of “illegal acts” that could terminate a liquor license. “Simple acts such as random touching, mannish attire (in the case of lesbians), limp wrists, high-pitched voices, and/or tight clothing (in the case of gay men) became evidence of a bar’s dubious character,” Boyd writes. “More serious behaviors such as same-sex dancing, kissing, caressing, and hand-holding could be interpreted as a violation of state or municipal laws regulating public decency.”17

At the same time, new movements were starting to emerge. As an alternative to the much-raided bars, Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization, was formed in 1955 in San Francisco, and a growing alliance of local and national homophile activist organizations would soon deploy a range of strategies and ideologies to “normalize the status of homosexuality in psychiatry and medicine and to curtail legal and police prosecution.”18 New publications also emerged as a result, with varied political perspectives and goals, which created imagined communities for lesbians and their allies across the United States.

Issues of The Ladder: vol. 3, no. 8 (May 1956); vol. 5, no. 2 (November 1960). Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society.

Andrea Geyer asked me to look through these lesbian and feminist periodicals for illustrations and graphics she might incorporate into patterns for a series of printed textiles.19 These, including the Daughters of Bilitis logo and the cover of a magazine called The Ladder, first published in San Francisco in 1956, became the basis for a work called Collective Weaves, which also referenced an exhibition of Mexican textiles from 1948 that Morley curated at the museum. While Geyer’s initial intention with the curtains was to reference Morley’s incorporation of domestic and design objects into the museum’s displays, while also hinting at her queerness and its context, to me, these fabric drapes also invoke the blackout curtains that kept the museum open past curfew during the war. They bring the social and political context of Morley’s curatorial work into direct dialogue with Geyer’s grappling with “the politics of erasure in the past and in this new present” and the role cultural institutions like SFMOMA might play in taking “a stand against this violence of disappearance.”20

Installation view of Mexican Decorative Arts, 1948. Courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Archives.

We will never know if it was simply coincidence that Morley’s work at the museum started to feel “increasingly unfavorable” and finally “quite impossible” just when these social and political pressures were working their way through North Beach, although it seems possible that a new “structure of feeling” was emerging throughout the city in complex ways, both inside and beyond the museum walls.21 Social and political life was in a similarly tumultuous state of flux during the second half of 2016 and early 2017, as Geyer’s project moved from research to installation. With an increasingly amplified white supremacist nationalism in the United States, and the prevailing sense that everything should be valued according to market metrics, I noticed that Geyer’s investigations of Morley continued to broaden from her initial inquiries regarding gender and sexuality to focus more on how Morley navigated and shaped her world as a cultural leader — what sense of place and purpose grounded her stewardship of the museum amid rises in fascism and McCarthyism. Against the renewed sense, in contemporary public life, that a heterogeneous common good is unattainable, unreasonable, or fiscally irresponsible, it’s possible that Morley — and Geyer’s vision of Morley — offer a compelling precedent for imagining how a cultural institution has the ability to function differently, now.22


  1. Grace McCann Morley, “Art, Artists, Museums, and the San Francisco Museum of Art,” oral history interview conducted by Suzanne B. Riess in 1960, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, p. 224.
  2. Kristy Phillips, “Grace McCann Morley and the National Museum of India,” in No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia (London, New York, and New Delhi: Routledge, 2015), 133. Phillips cites “Art: Twenty Years of Grace,” Time, February 28, 1955. Other published writings on Morley include Berit Potter, “Grace McCann Morley: Defending and Diversifying Modern Art.”
  3. The scholars I refer to are Berit Potter, Kara Kirk, and Kristy Phillips.
  4. Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 66.
  5. Ibid., 66–68.
  6. Ibid., 68, 77.
  7. Ibid., 66.
  8. Ibid., 66.
  9. Ibid., 100.
  10. Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 39–40.
  11. Oral history interview with Stanton L. Catlin, July 1–September 14, 1989, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-grace-morley-12774.
  12. Ibid.
  13. San Francisco City Directories 1934–1960, https://sfpl.org/?pg=2000540401.
  14. Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town, 110.
  15. Ibid., 68–69.
  16. Ibid., 96.
  17. Ibid., 137.
  18. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 18–19.
  19. Other publications included Amazon Quarterly, Azalea, Country Woman, Cowrie, Lady Unique Inclination of the Night, Lavender U, Lavender Woman, Politica Sexual, Spectre, The Furies, and The Lesbian Tide.
  20. https://www.andreageyer.info/projects/traced/traced.html.
  21. The “structure of feeling” reference is to Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1977).
  22. For more on precedents and what it might mean to inhabit the unprecedented, now, see “We Want a Precedent,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, November 6, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQVLTzbZYsA.
cite as: , “Wide Open Publics: Tracing Grace McCann Morley’s San Francisco,” August 2017.San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/wide-open-publics-tracing-grace-mccann-morleys-san-francisco/

Megan Martenyi

Megan Martenyi

Megan Martenyi has been an adjunct researcher for Public Dialogue since 2014. Her interest in the politics of knowledge production developed through working at the San Francisco Public Library, the California Historical Society, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, and the Freedom Archives. Megan earned a master’s in women and gender studies at San Francisco State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in politics at UC Santa Cruz.