“I am quite open and unashamed in my liking for expositions—“
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, opening broadcast for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, February 18, 1939
Thanks to FDR, at least six of the American expositions of the 1930s received generous federal funding. The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), 1939-1940, was originally to be a celebration of the recently completed Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. As plans progressed, the idea grew to encompass the countries and cultures of the Pacific—with San Francisco as the gateway.
The WPA and PWA paid to build the site in San Francisco Bay that became Treasure Island, as well as its three permanent Art Moderne airport buildings. The island was publicized as the site for a world’s fair (temporary) and an airport (permanent). But GGIE president Leland Cutler wrote that President Roosevelt “was intensely interested in both airport and a national defense site on San Francisco Bay.” In spite of public outcry, it was really no surprise when the Navy seized Treasure Island in 1942 for the war effort.
Thankfully, the WPA funded art as well as artillery, and the federal government funded many art programs, particularly in the Federal Building and in the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts. The GGIE was also progressive in its employment of women artists. Of the thirteen local artists commissioned to convey the fair’s theme in the “Court of Pacifica,” more than half were women: Adaline Kent, Helen Phillips, Ruth Cravath, and Cecilia Graham each created three of the twenty “Pacific Unity” sculptures, and the Bruton sisters—Helen, Esther and Margaret—created the huge “Peacemakers” relief mural.
Lulu Hawkins Braghetta designed the GGIE’s giant relief “Path of Darkness” in the Temple Compound, and Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli painted the four “First Garden” murals in the South Towers. Six sculptures can be seen today at the entrance to the Treasure Island Museum in Building One, including two of Helen Phillips’s “Pacific Unity” sculptures.
As vice-chair of the Art Committee in 1940, architect Timothy Pflueger was in charge of all of the activities and exhibits that filled the massive Hall of Fine and Decorative Arts. His big success in 1940 was “Art in Action,” a “theater of the arts” where visitors could observe and interact with artists at work. With Helen Bruton as manager, the program included at least 50 local artists—painters, lithographers, sculptors, and weavers among them.
Most celebrated among these artists was Diego Rivera, who arrived from Mexico to paint his third and largest San Francisco fresco, “Pan American Unity.” Riviera’s colorful 22 x 75-foot mural required an army of assistants, including painters, plasterers, pigment grinders, and a cook. Largely overlooked are Rivera’s painting assistants, several of whom were women. Ely de Vescovi, Thelma Johnson Streat, and Mine Okubo were artists in their own right. Rivera’s chief assistant was Emmy Lou Packard, who met Rivera on a family trip to Mexico and developed a lifelong association with him.
World War II interrupted plans to install “Pan American Unity” at a new library planned for City College. The mural spent decades in storage. It was finally installed at the college’s Little Theater, a space much too small for it. A new performing arts center planned for the campus will provide a more suitable venue. In the meantime, the mural will move to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective in 2020.
Treasure Island no longer belongs to the Navy. The city is developing it into “San Francisco’s Newest Neighborhood.”
View a 1939 newsreel about the “Pageant of the Pacific”.
The Golden Gate International Exposition celebrates its 80th anniversary in February of 2019. Please visit https://www.treasureislandmuseum.org/ for information about upcoming events.