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An Enduring Relationship

A timeline exploring the interwoven relationship between SFAI and SFMOMA, from the 1870s to today.

The relationship between SFAI and SFMOMA has its roots in the 1870s when the city’s major arts organization, the San Francisco Art Association, opened both an art school and an exhibition gallery. That school eventually became what we now know as SFAI, and that gallery was the first incarnation of what is now SFMOMA.

In 1916, after the closing of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, public demand for contemporary art was high enough that the San Francisco Art Association created the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) It continued under the oversight of the SFAA until it broke off and became independent in 1935, soon after moving into new quarters in the War Memorial Veterans Building at Van Ness and McCallister.

Yet the relationship between SFAI and SFMOMA remained strong. In the 1930s, SFMOMA founding director Grace McMann Morley and Ansel Adams, pioneered photography as fine art at the museum. A decade later, Adams established the photography department at the school with Minor WhiteDorothea LangeImogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston—all of whom exhibited extensively at SFMOMA.

The fact that between 1935 and 1945 “one-third of the exhibitions each year” were of work by local artists demonstrated SFMOMA’s commitment to Bay Area art and its antecedents. This local loyalty complemented Morley’s primary objective, which was “to stay close to the growing edge of creative art of our time” while exposing San Francisco and its artists “to contemporary art as it developed.”[1]

Over the years, both SFAI and SFMOMA have transformed into institutions of international stature.  Hundreds of SFAI alumni and faculty have had their work exhibited at and/or acquired by SFMOMA.

By Jeff Gunderson, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian and Becky Alexander, Media Assistant

[1] Grace McCann Morley, “An Anniversary,” in Art of Our Time: Tenth Anniversary Exhibitions, January 18-February 5, 1945, 11 (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1945); Grace Morley interviews, 1982 Feb. 6 - Mar. 24, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


Janet Delaney received her MFA from SFAI in 1981 in photography, and worked on the South of Market series pictured here as a grad student. Delaney has been a visiting faculty at SFAI over the years—and very recently.

Image: Janet Delaney, Tim O'Shea Eviction Graffiti, Langton Street, San Francisco, from the series South of Market, 1979; printed 2011; chromogenic print; 16 in. x 20 in. (40.64 cm x 50.8 cm); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the artist; © Janet Delaney.


Ansel Adams, here with the first students in SFAI’s photography program in 1946 (Philip Hyde, Muriel Green, Pirkle Jones, and others), was instrumental, along with San Francisco Museum of Art director Grace McCann Morley, in ensuring that fine art photography was treated seriously as an art form and exhibited at the museum as early as the mid-1930s.


Grace McCann Morley became the director of the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) when it moved into the War Memorial Veterans Building at Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street in 1935. During the 1930s and 1940s, she occasionally taught art history at the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI).


Joan Brown received her BFA from the school in 1959 and her MFA in 1960. She taught at SFAI from 1961–1968. Brown received an Honorary Doctorate from SFAI in 1986.

Image: Joan Brown, Woman Wearing Mask, 1972; oil enamel on Masonite; 90 1/8 in. x 48 in. (228.92 cm x 121.92 cm); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Audrey Taylor Strohl; © Estate of Joan Brown


SFAI and SFMOMA have been fortunate to have shared magnanimous donors over the years: the Crocker, Haas, Zellerbach, Fleishhacker, and Swig families, and wonderful folks like Arthur Brown, Timothy Pflueger, William Gerstle, Albert Bender, and Nell Sinton. Pictured below are Harold Zellerbach, Mrs. Henry Potter Russell, and Rudolph Peterson in SFAI’s courtyard—all supporters of both the school and the museum.


Dr. Reidar Wennesland and his monkey, Ernest, who became the first and only monkey to direct the school for one month in May 1955. Wennesland was the physician of many Beat Era artists, accepting artworks in lieu of payment. Many artists of that era were fellow travelers with SFAI and their work now peppers SFMOMA including Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Jess, Wally Hedrick, Carlos Villa, and others.


Richard Diebenkorn attended the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI) in 1946 and was immediately hired as a painting instructor for the years between 1947–1950. Afterwards, he wandered off to New Mexico and elsewhere and returned to teach at the school from 1959–1966. Diebenkorn received an Honorary Doctorate from SFAI in 1975.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #47, 1955; oil on canvas; 59 in. x 66 in. (149.86 cm x 167.64 cm); The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.


Barry McGee received his BFA from SFAI in printmaking in 1991, and was was one of the winners of the prestigious Anne Bremer Memorial Library’s Artists’ Book Contest in 1990.

Image: Barry McGee, Untitled, 2009; mixed media; dimensions variable; Fractional gift of the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco; © Barry McGee

This post was originally published in Art + Effect, SFAI’s biannual donor magazine. View online »

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