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Seattle Art Museum Libraries: Digital Collections

Wartime: 1940-49

Annual Report Cover (1942)

1942

Reports in the 1940s 

Though Europe was in the throes of World War II at the end of the 1930s, Dr. Richard Fuller and SAM did not begin to feel the effects until the beginning of the 1940s. The political climate is apparent in the annual reports:

Most of [the current exhibitions] show the work of contemporary artists who, by necessity in these turbulent days, are principally Americans. The only material from war torn Europe was an exhibition of inspiring paintings by the London County School Children which came to us through the Seattle Public Schools. (1940) 

The specter of war loomed stateside, and Dr. Fuller reflected on the "burden" of "cultural responsibilities" during times of crisis:

We can not disregard the fact that in spite of the relative prosperity of our community, there are clouds on the horizon, and that the demands and uncertainty of the coming year may tempt many to neglect their cultural responsibilities with the thought that others will bear the burden. (1940)

In the following years, wartime measures went into effect. Dr. Fuller and the museum staff took care to ensure that the collections and museum patrons were safe during this uncertain time, instituting blackout hours and ending evening opening times, securing fragile works of art (including a large move of artworks to Denver), and creating an evacuation plan. At the same time, in order to fulfill the mission of providing solace, inspiration, education, entertainment, diversion, and comfort to the public, the Board of Trustees "decreed that the Museum, for the duration of the war, should be free to the public during its regular hours" in spite of the "increased burden" this would place on future finances (1941). SAM sought to build morale through art and education:

During the trying days ahead the Museum will endeavor to serve both the community and the nation in various capacities even beyond the realm of art. Its major educational responsibility is to the younger generation, but in contributing to civilian morale the programs will concentrate essentially on various aspects of art that tend to strengthen the existing bond of friendship between the United Nations...we trust that our members and our donors, to whom we are so grateful, will continue to be faithful to our organization with an increased conviction in the importance of the part that the Museum plays in the life of our community even during years of conflict. (1941)

Museum attendance and activity decreased "during the national emergency" because as Dr. Fuller states, "A museum, especially in a strategic center, such as Seattle, obviously feels the effect of the war" (1942) but at the same time he notes, "While we have been forced to curtail some important activities, we have expanded others even outside the realm of art where we could definitely contribute to some phase of the war effort by focusing public attention" (1943). This manifested in many ways, including exhibits such as the American Red Cross poster competition, a collaboration with Boeing, and a series of photographs called Twenty-five Years of the Soviet Union, which purported to "illustrate the achievements of our ally not only during the war but in the years preceding it" (1943); the screening of civilian defense films and the use of the receiving room for Red Cross Standard First Aid, air raid warden, and civilian defense instruction (1941); and finally the allotment of the "Study Gallery to the Air Raid Wardens for use as the headquarters of the East Central Zone" (1943).

In addition to these wartime activities hosted at SAM, museum staff got personally involved in the effort. Librarian Miss Marcia T. Marple resigned from her post in June of 1942 "owing to the fact that she received the distinction of being one of the few selected from the country to attend the first Officers Training Camp of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps" (1942). Dr. Fuller himself served as an officer in the Army Specialists Corps; during his six month absence, Mrs. Thomas D. Stimson (Emma Baillargeon Stimson) served as acting director, making her the first female director of the institution (1943). 

At no other time in the museum’s history would American involvement in conflict be so very present. It is clear that SAM and Dr. Fuller sought to be as involved and supportive as possible during the wartime effort that consumed the entire nation in this particular period of American history.

Reports began to include images of acquisitions from the fiscal year beginning in 1944, but also took on a more uniform aesthetic quality throughout the decade, with cover art consistently featuring an image of the exterior of the Volunteer Park building. There is little that distinguishes the reports physically from one another year over year. While more complex than the plain-print Depression-era production of the reports in the 1930s, wartime austerity appears physically and inherently reflected in the quality of the publications themselves. 

After the end of the war - and the lifting of associated restrictions - museum attendance and activity began to rebound. By 1947, work on physical improvements to the building had resumed, and membership fees and donations once again reached a level that met operating expenses. SAM continued to build upon the reputation it had established during wartime as a source of community inspiration and education. In the final report of the 1940s, Dr. Fuller celebrated the success of a year with "exceptionally rich" accessions and an exhibition program that was "more ambitious than ever," but he also cautioned against "smug complacency" as SAM approached the beginning of a new decade.