Museums and Public Art at the Turn of the 20th Century

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

continued from part four

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The Fine Arts Building of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.

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During the early period of San Francisco history—as in the case of western cities generally—the development of the arts followed patterns similar to those east of the Rockies. In San Francisco, as in the other leading cities of the West in 1880, no sharp distinctions separated places of entertainment from places for the appreciation of the arts. Beer gardens, lecture halls, and twelve theaters flourished in the city, and the Grand Opera House stood at the social and cultural heart of San Francisco. Two thousand people in formal evening dress attended special events there amid ornate splendor. Chinatown had its Chinese Royal and Chinese Grand theaters. Other San Franciscans from all walks of life flocked to the four-thousand-seat pavilion at Woodward’s Gardens. Support for arts and entertainment came from private sources during the period of robust expansion and economic ups and downs between the gold rush and the 1890s. All kinds of city government expenditure earned the scrutiny of politically active San Franciscans, and the dominant laissez-faire ideals of the period discouraged public spending to support art activities of any kind.

By the 1890s, San Francisco’s dominant position on the Pacific Coast was challenged by Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. Then the serious depression between 1893 and 1897 convinced the city’s business community of the need to bolster the image of San Francisco and to improve its reputation by enhancing its prowess as a cultural center. Such cultural development required cultural philanthropists to develop new relationships among private associations, city government, and the arts. The events leading to the establishment of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum illustrate the beginnings of these new arrangements. De Young, proprietor of the Chronicle, served as a commissioner and vice-president of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He believed that San Francisco should announce its intention to prosper despite the depression by presenting a “Mid-Winter Fair” advertising the climatic advantages of the city and California. A committee of activists from business and the professions, not the city government, created a fund-raising drive that raised $361,000. The committee elected de Young head of the fair, and over two million attended by the close of the gates in July 1894.

The fair earned a profit of $126,991, which was used to finance the conversion of the Fine and Decorative Art Building and the adjacent Royal Bavarian Pavilion into a permanent museum. This Mid-Winter Fair Memorial Museum was inaugurated and administered by the Park Commission in March 1895. The Park Commission exercised jurisdiction over the museum from 1895 to 1926; the name changed to the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in January 1921 when the Park Commission accepted the deed of trust.

The museum’s history between 1895 and 1921 illustrates the complex combination of private initiative and public support characterizing the origins of several arts policies during this period. De Young made his private collections gifts to the city; the Park Commission provided the funds for expansion in 1897: donations and wills from other private individuals helped pay building costs for expansion from 1917 to 1921. De Young’s belief that “when the people have a little leisure time, they do not go downtown, where the streets are dead and there is no life. They go to their parks. And that is the logical place for a museum,” helped ensure that Golden Gate Park would house one of the city’s major cultural institutions. His conviction that the museum should be open every day of the week free of charge helped ensure its popularity and high attendance rates.(39)

M. H. de Young celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in October 1924 at a gathering hosted by the Downtown Association, the David Scannel Club of firefighters, and members of the Police Department. The popularity evinced by these and other tributes helps to explain the widespread support generated by the de Young Endowment Committee in its drive to amend the city charter to make the de Young Museum a separate city agency under the control of a self-perpetuating board of trustees rather than a part of the Park Commission. The amendment committed the Board of Supervisors to appropriate not less than $40,000 annually for the support of the museum; de Young himself provided a bequest of bonds worth $150,000 from his estate. By the November 4, 1924, election, Proposition 29 had won endorsements from the Civic League of Improvement Clubs and Associations, the Downtown Association, the San Francisco Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Board, the Bureau of Governmental Research, and the Labor Council.(40)

Proposition 29 passed by wide margins in all of the city’s assembly districts, with support dropping below 60 percent only in the Bayshore and North Beach areas where voters nonetheless voted 58 and 57 percent in favor. In 1924 just over half the registered voters supported the new policy to establish a separate city subsidy for the de Young Museum and to place it under a self-perpetuating board of trustees. In the same election, 54 percent of the voters approved Proposition 28, amending the charter to accept the California Palace of the Legion of Honor as a gift from Adolph B. and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels and to require the Board of Supervisors to provide “sufficient funds” for its annual maintenance as a museum. As in the case of Proposition 29, the assembly districts that polled the highest majorities above the citywide average were in middle- and upper-middle-class areas.(41)

The few percentage point differences among the various parts of San Francisco should not distract attention from the general voter support for city government to assume financial responsibility for the de Young and the Palace of the Legion of Honor under a new policy. The concept that public funds would be turned over to and administered by self-perpetuating boards of trustees received substantial majorities in all parts of the city.(42)

Two years later, in 1926, voters, by more than three to one, authorized the city to accept from the U.S. War Department a deed to the property occupied by the Palace of Fine Arts (originally part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition). Although fewer than half of the registered voters participated in this decision to amend the charter, the high majorities (only one assembly district returned a yes vote below 70 percent) suggest widespread voter approval of an earlier Board of Supervisors decision to spend $100,000 on rehabilitation of the building and to continue city government maintenance.(43)

Interaction among individual “cultural entrepreneurs,” art interest groups, municipal government, and the voting public not only shaped city policy toward the de Young Memorial Museum, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Palace of Fine Arts, but also guided the establishment of the War Memorial Opera House and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Both the Musical Association of San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Association participated in a 1918 proposal to build a structure to house a symphony hall, opera, and art museum. A memorial court, dedicated to the Arts of Peace and the military forces of World War I, was to be included. John Drum chaired a fund-raising committee composed of William H. Crocker, Charles Templeton Crocker, Milton Esberg, Herbert Fleishhacker, Emanuel Heller, Walter Martin, and John McKee. By the spring of 1920 the committee had collected subscriptions and pledges for $1,625,000 and purchased a building site opposite city hall.(44)

View southwest toward War Memorial Complex built 1931-32. Veteran's Bldg. and Opera House War Memorial of San Francisco 1935 wnp70.0873.jpg

View southwest toward War Memorial Complex, built 1931-32. Veteran's Building and Opera House War Memorial of San Francisco.

Photo: wnp70.0873

The original committee was expanded by representatives of the American Legion, who were interested in the suggestion that the building contain quarters for the Legion. With the participation of the Legion, a new fund-raising drive opened with a well-publicized rally in May 1920, but only about $370,000 additional subscriptions followed.

William H. Crocker, at the time a regent of the University of California, advised the committee that the War Memorial would be tax-exempt if the project became part of the university. The regents agreed to enter into a trust agreement with representatives of the San Francisco Art Association (Waller Martin and Charles Templeton Crocker), representatives of the Musical Association (John McKee and Emanuel Heller), representatives of the American Legion (Charles Kendrick and Frank F. Kilsby), as well as Milton Esberg, Herbert Fleishhacker, William H. Crocker, and John Drum. The War Memorial Trust Agreement, dated August 19, 1921, became the legal foundation for the War Memorial project.

During the next nine years, a number of issues concerning the building of the War Memorial developed. These issues and the pattern by which the parties involved settled them illustrate again the nature of the interaction between the groups involved in the creation of the city’s arts policy. In 1923 the trustees made a proposal to the city to build an opera house, an American Legion building, and an art museum that would be part of the Civic Center. The city would purchase the land (the original lot was sold in 1924 because it seemed too small) with funds provided by the trustees and then refund half of the money to the trustees. The city acquired the site of the War Memorial buildings between 1923 and 1925 after the Board of Supervisors approved the proposal.

After the trustees found an architectural team in 1926, they decided that additional funds would be necessary beyond those already subscribed. Not wanting to pare down the plans, they decided to use the existing funds and request a supplement from the voters. They met with a United Veterans Council War Memorial Committee, publishers of the major city newspapers, and the Board of Supervisors and decided to build only two buildings instead of the original three. There would be an opera house and a “Veterans and Arts Building.” The Board of Supervisors agreed to submit a $4 million bond issue to the public in the spring of 1927, and all five newspapers endorsed the measure.

Only 31 percent of San Francisco’s registered voters expressed a preference on the War Memorial bonds, with 70 percent approval. All assembly districts gave majorities favorable to the bonds, with the lowest majority being 64 percent in the Bayshore District. The other bond issues that required a two-thirds vote did not obtain high enough majorities, but the War Memorial passed with a comfortable two-thirds.

Between spring 1927 and fall 1928, differences of opinion developed between some of the veterans’ groups and the War Memorial trustees. The University of California regents notified the Board of Supervisors in September 1928 of their intention to transfer the trust funds to the city. Concerned that they might not receive sufficient space under the new plans, in 1928 the veterans campaigned against a charter amendment to create a new city board of trustees for the War Memorial, accusing the original trustees of mismanagement and waste of the privately subscribed funds, and the Board of Supervisors held up the $4 million bond issue until the veteran organizations were satisfied with the plans. The parties finally reached a compromise by November 1930 when the board approved the transfer of funds to the eleven “Trustees of the War Memorial,” which voters had approved in the November 1928 election.(45)

Interest groups with a large citywide constituency—like the veterans’ organizations—could influence the outcome of arts policy issues on the ballot, but smaller groups influenced arts policy largely by cooperative interactions with city officials. The eventual resolution of the differences between the San Francisco Art Association and the San Francisco Museum of Art (the museum was the agency created by the Art Association to operate the museum part of the War Memorial) and the veterans’ organizations depended on gradual adjustment involving the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the city attorney, and the representatives of the organizations rather than on public participation by voters involving widespread publicity and debate.

Close and cooperative association among groups with a direct interest in the arts, city officials, and municipal reform organizations such as the Commonwealth Club and the San Francisco Bureau of Governmental Research provided the impetus for the inclusion of an Art Commission in the revised city charter that was prepared in 1930 and passed by voters in 1931. Sections 45 and 46 of this charter, concerned with the composition of the Art Commission and its powers and duties, came almost word for word from the recommendations of the art sections of the Commonwealth Club.(46)

In February 1931, after the charter had been drafted but before voter approval in March, members of the groups that claimed credit for the insertion of the Art Commission in the new city charter formed the San Francisco Federation of Arts. This group defined its purpose as “setting up of machinery for the nomination of members of the Commission of Arts as proposed in the new Charter of San Francisco and such other duties as may be determined later.”(47) One month after voters approved the charter, the new organization formally inaugurated its activities. Believing that “it is obvious that those actively occupied with the arts are in the best position to know who in the community is qualified to serve in this capacity,” the organizing committee went on to say that “this subject [nominations to the mayor for the art commissioners] affords but the immediate incentive for organizing the proposed Federation. We are confident that it will quickly prove its utility in all matters arousing the common interest of local arts groups, or calling for their united action.” The following groups received invitations for the June 1931 meeting: San Francisco Art Association, San Francisco Opera Association, Musical Association of San Francisco, San Francisco Musicians Club, San Francisco Society of Women Artists, Roxburghe Club of San Francisco, Bohemian Club, The Book Club (Northern California Chapter), American Institute of Architects, American Federation of Musicians (Local No. 6), and American Society of Landscape Architects (Pacific Coast Chapter). The other art organizations of the city would be welcome once the federation had established itself as an information advisory group for the mayor, Board of Supervisors, and the Art Commission.

The organizers of the federation sought to shape San Francisco arts policy according to a model derived from New York. On April 27, 1931, the chairman wrote to the secretary of the Fine Arts Federation of New York for copies of its constitution and bylaws “and any other data that would assist us in the formation of this Federation.” The federation regarded its role as a necessary corrective to time-consuming methods of policy making that occurred as the result of debate, disagreement, conflict, and compromise. The controversies among the veteran organizations, the Art Association of San Francisco, and the trustees over the War Memorial plans had generated delays of four years, and some unresolved issues would continue to create friction until the late 1930s. Chairman E. Spencer Macky of the federation described the goals of the new organization in a way that specified its members’ perception of its proper political role:

We do need some united action in this city in matters pertaining to art. We feel that such an organization can do a great deal to unify public opinion, and bring political pressure to bear through its united membership in the political support of art in this city.

The public announcement distributed after the formal inauguration of the federation also explicitly referred to the federation’s political nature:

Hitherto situations demanding common action between the various arts or between various organizations in the same field have had to be met by some sort of improvised co-operation, with the attendant delay and inefficiency that this implies. The new federation provides permanent and organized means for meeting these situations as they arise.

The federation met on November 19, 1931, to select its nominees to the mayor for the Art Commission, and the commission held its first meeting on January 21, 1932.

The new charter preserved the independence of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor from the Board of Supervisors and the mayor. Because they had self-perpetuating boards serving indefinitely, these cultural institutions would develop policies independently of political currents within San Francisco. The Art Commission, on the other hand, received a mandate to “exercise all reasonable supervision of policy connected to the arts as may hereafter be assigned to it by ordinance or executive action.” The charter also gave the Art Commission power to “supervise and control the expenditure of all appropriations made by the Board of Supervisors for music and the advancement of art and music.” These charter provisions allowed the Art Commission to develop interpretations of its responsibilities both by influencing and by being influenced by mayors and supervisors, as well as by interest groups outside city government. The charter also required the Art Commission to approve works of art in buildings on city property and designs for buildings, bridges, and other structures on city property.


32. Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 137-147; Buckley, “Reminiscences,” Bulletin, Jan. 28, 1919, p. 8.
33. Marlin Kelly, “Martin Kelly’s Story,” Bulletin, Sept. 7, 1917, p. 8; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 137 — 147.
34. Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 146-148, 264-265, note 33 on p. 299, note 47 on p. 300. Others give the figure of $900.000 for Buckley's worth in 1890; see R. Hal Williams, The Democratic Party and California Politics: 1880 — 1896 (Stanford, 1973), p. 150.
35. Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 147—150; for a full discussion of expenditure patterns, see McDonald, “Urban Development,” ch. 4.
36. Buckley, “Reminiscences,” Bulletin, Jan. 13, 1919, p. 14; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 77, 154, 172, 202, 217, 221,223; Williams, Democratic Party, pp. 149 —150; Curtis E. Grassman, “Prologue to California Reform: “The Democratic Impulse, 1886 — 1898,” Pacific Historical Review 42 (Nov. 1973):518 — 536.
37. Kelly, “Story,” Bulletin, Oct. 3, 1917, p. 8; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 227, 237; William A. Bullough, “Hannibal Versus the Blind Boss: The Junta, Chris Buckley, and Democratic Reform Politics in San Francisco,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (May 1977): 198—199; Callow, “San Francisco’s Blind Boss,” pp. 277—278.
38. Bullough, “Hannibal,” pp. 193 — 194, 197 ; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 240—241.
39. Election data for the period 1888 — 1896 is fragmentary and often incomplete. The official tabulations burned in the fire of 1906. The Municipal Reports, the source for data by district or ward for both earlier and later times, did not break returns down during this period. The newspapers sometimes printed summaries by assembly districts, but usually only for early returns. Sources for this analysis, and those which follow: Examiner, Nov. 6, 1890, p. 1 (summary of 201 of the 310 precincts for the 1890 election); Bulletin, Nov. 10, 1892, p. 2 (summary based on 30 percent of the ballots for the 1892 election); Examiner, Nov. 9, 1894, p. 3 (results of an exit poll, based on ten voters per precinct; the results for the two leading candidates are within ten percentage points of the official returns; those for the other two candidates are within two percentage points); Examiner, Nov. 4, 1896, p. 11 (another exit poll, conducted in the same fashion; the winning candidate is within one percentage point in his official tally). For the official tally citywide, see the Municipal Reports for the various years.
40. For election data, see sources listed in note 39 for 1892, 1894, and 1896; San Francisco Call, Nov. 10, 1892, p. 8.
41. Petersen, “Struggle for the Australian Ballot,” pp. 232—239; Stewart and Stewart, Adolph Sutro, p. 202-204; Bullough, “Hannibal," p. 195.
42. Buckley, “Reminiscences,” Bulletin, Jan. 28, 1919, p. 8; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 122, 129 — 130; see also Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. ed. (New York, 1968), pp. 129-132.
43. Kelly, “Story,” Bulletin, Sept. 19, 1917, p. 8; Bullough, Blind Boss, p. 116.
44. Older and Older, George Hearst, pp. 177—180.
45. Jacob Adler, Claus Spreckels: The Sugar King in Hawaii (Honolulu, 1966), pp. 36 — 4 1, 52 — 68; Arthur B. Darling, ed., The Public Papers of Francis G. Newlands, 2 vol. (Boston, 1932), 1:2-4.
46. J. Glocker to “Dear Sir,” Sept. 1, 1877, San Francisco Early Documents Scrap-book, California Historical Society, San Francisco; Abraham Ruef, “The Road I Traveled: An Autobiographic Account of My Career from the University to Prison, with an Intimate Recital of the Corrupt Alliance Between Big Business and Politics in San Francisco,” Bulletin, June 8, 1912, p. 1; Callow, “San Francisco's Blind Boss,” p. 277; Kelly, “Story,” Bulletin, Sept. 7, 1917, p. 8; Bullough, Blind Boss, p. 141; Daggett, Southern Pacific, p. 21 1.
47. George, “Kearney Agitation,” pp. 452 — 453.

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Excerpted from San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 5 “Culture and Moral Order”

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