In 1939, Montalvo opened as a public arts center with 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.
“Villa Montalvo” is a national historical landmark designed by William Curlett, as lead architect. Upon Curlett’s death, his son, Alex Curlett, and partner, Charles Gottschalk, took over the completion of the historic villa. The villa’s gardens and grounds were designed by John McLaren, the landscape designer of Golden Gate Park, who laid out the grounds with hidden nooks and wisteria-covered pergolas. “Villa Montalvo” was built for James Duval Phelan (1861-1930), who was a three-term mayor of San Francisco, and went on to become California’s first popularly-elected U.S. Senator. Villa Montalvo was his beloved country home until his death in 1930.
The name “Villa Montalvo” is a reference to popular 16th-century Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who first coined the name “California.” In one of his fables, he described an island rich with gold and jewels, peopled by Amazons whose queen was named Califia. On the mythical island of California, Montalvo’s Amazons rode griffins, the winged guardians of precious treasure. Griffin statues can still be found throughout the Montalvo grounds, standing guard over one of California’s true precious treasures.
In the Senator’s time, Villa Montalvo was a center of artistic, political, and social life in Northern California. Phelan invited writers and artists to Villa Montalvo to work on individual artistic projects—Jack London, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Edwin Markham were among Phelan’s many guests.
Senator Phelan is remembered as a patron of the arts, and an advocate for public health, women’s suffrage, and anti-corruption. He is responsible for creating public parks and protected natural spaces, and also for the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, which has served as a key water source for the San Francisco Bay Area for over a century.
Phelan is also remembered for his nativist and racist politics—especially his career-long endorsement of Asian exclusion acts and his opposition to Asian immigration. Phelan’s bid for reelection to the Senate in 1920 failed, with the campaign slogan “Keep California White.” Phelan’s political work eventually led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Japanese immigration into the United States.
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.”
Although we are grateful for this historic property, Montalvo Arts Center explicitly affirms our identity as an anti-racist arts institution. We condemn racism, discrimination, inequity, and bigotry in all forms. This work is ongoing and evolving. We are passionately dedicated to this belief and aim to serve as an inclusive environment rich in dialogue and fellowship for all our patrons and visitors. In all our programs, projects, and events, we are guided by the sincere belief that the arts belong to everyone and that they enrich our lives, help us explore complex topics, spark necessary conversations, and bring us together as a community.
In 2005, the organization took the name “Montalvo Arts Center,” emphasizing its commitment to the arts of all kinds and sharing them with our diverse community. Today, Montalvo embraces art as the ultimate gift to humanity, an enduring treasure, and the very essence of our programs. Montalvo is home to the Lucas Artists Program, which serves as a creative incubator and cultural producer, supporting contemporary artists in their creative process. We commission multidisciplinary, culturally relevant works of art; we host festivals, art exhibitions, and other public programs that allow our community to connect with artists and the arts. Every year, we impact the lives of more than a quarter million people from throughout the Bay Area.