An independent nonprofit organization, the Museum of Performance + Design has a mission: ‘To keep the unfolding history of the performing arts in the San Francisco Bay Area alive. We collect, preserve and interpret materials on performance and theater design to support learning, appreciation and creativity within a world-wide community of artists, researchers and the general public.’ The collections cover a wide range of San Francisco’s heritage, especially focusing on the era from the Gold Rush to the present. Some of the items stored here include the personal papers of prominent artists, original costumes and design renderings, audio-visual recordings of live performances, original artwork, and more. The museum is also host to the archives of a variety of popular performing arts organizations in the city, like the San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera, Stern Grove Festival, and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.
The museum began in an unusual way over 60 years ago with the private collection of Russell Hartley. Hartley, a dancer and costume designer for the San Francisco Ballet, intended to collect materials in his home documenting solely the history of dance. He collected artifacts from thrift stores and even European cities, formally creating the San Francisco Dance Archives in 1947. Over time, the collection grew to include more memorabilia under the general umbrella of performing arts, and in 1975 it was established as the Archives for the Performing Arts and moved to a San Francisco Public Library branch. The collection lived there until 1983, when it was moved to a 1,000 square-foot storage space in the Opera House. When Hartley died, he left the remains of his private collection to the Archives, and an institution began to form around them. In 1989, the collection was moved to a larger location in the Civic Center neighborhood, which then became established as the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum. Ten years later, SFPALM was moved to the still larger San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, and upon the collection’s 60th anniversary in 2007, it was renamed the Museum of Performance + Design. Unfortunately this new home was closed for renovations in 2013, so the Museum moved to its current SoMa location.
In its current location, the museum has been able to continue expanding, now hosting onsite exhibitions, lectures, classes, and other events, in addition to its primary collections, which host about 3.5 million items. The institution is also working to continue to help the performing arts thrive in the community with a variety of projects, including Preserving San Francisco’s 20th Century Musical Landscape, Archive Live, and Preserving The Threads to Our Past.