Montalvo Arts Center is historically known as Villa Montalvo, a historic landmark built in 1912 by James Duval Phelan (1861-1930). Phelan, a passionate Californian who had been a three-term progressive mayor of San Francisco, went on to become California's first popularly-elected U.S. Senator. Villa Montalvo was Senator Phelan's favorite home and a center of artistic, political and social life in Northern California. Phelan invited leading writers and artists to Villa Montalvo to work on individual artistic projects in an environment rich in dialogue and fellowship. Jack London, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Douglass Fairbanks, and Edwin Markham were among Phelan's many guests.
At his death, Senator Phelan was explicit in his bequest of Villa Montalvo. "I would like the property at Saratoga, California, known as Villa Montalvo, to be maintained as a public park open under reasonable restrictions, the buildings and grounds immediately surrounding the same to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students."
In 1930, the San Francisco Art Association assumed trusteeship of Villa Montalvo and within a year announced the intention to launch an artist residency program, the third program of its kind in the United States. In 1939, the Villa reopened to the public as an arts center with 10 artists in residence and a small gallery in the Villa. At the official opening, Dr. Stephen Pepper, head of the art department at the University of California stated, "Through the cooperation of artists and the community, Montalvo in its silence and beauty - will become one of the creative forces of the world."
Following World War II, a shift in priorities for the SFAA left many local citizens concerned about the future of Villa Montalvo. These citizens joined together to form the Montalvo Association, and in October 1953 trusteeship of the villa was turned over to that organization where it remains today.
For over 75 years, Montalvo has served the community as a center for creativity, offering art courses, performing arts events, gallery exhibitions, educational opportunities, artist residencies and more. Today, Montalvo and its arts programs serve nearly 200,000 visitors each year.
The name "Villa Montalvo" is a reference to popular 16th-century Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who coined the name "California". In one of his fables, he described an island rich with gold and jewels, peopled by Amazons whose queen was Califia. On this storybook island of California, Montalvo's Amazons rode griffins, the mythical winged guardians of precious treasure. Griffins can still be found throughout the Montalvo grounds, standing guard over one of California's true precious treasures. The property was officially renamed "Montalvo Arts Center" in January 2005 to better represent the mission and offerings of the space.