Growing an Art Museum

By Ruth Waters
Founder and Former Executive Director

Art museums are founded by major collectors and/or philanthropists, mostly men, as monuments to their taste and a legacy to their communities.

The Peninsula Museum of Art was founded by a working artist, a woman, Ruth Waters. I have an interesting collection of art from fellow artists and travels; developed an art center (complex of working studios for 27 visual artists, small gallery, since 1977); and an enduring dream, but no money to speak of.

The dream emerged when we (husband, three children) returned to Northern California from the Washington, D.C. area. For twenty years I dropped the need for an art museum into art community conversations with no noticeable effect. Everyone assumed that San Francisco’s art scene was and would always be sufficient.

Then our world shook with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and everything changed. Transportation issues, especially, have encouraged residents of the San Francisco Peninsula to look around their neighborhoods for their cultural amenities. BioTech had already developed in the northern part of the County, and high-tech had expanded from the south. The expansion of the corporate world altered all the patterns, and we were no longer just a collection of bedroom communities.

By 1997, a public forum hosted by ARTshare of San Mateo County (later renamed the Peninsula Arts Council) identified an art museum and a performing arts center as the two major holes in our cultural fabric. That day the Working Committee for an Art Museum organized, scheduled monthly meetings, and started brainstorming ways and means, goals and strategies, and names.

We decided the art museum should be centrally located in an urban area, preferably within walking distance of public transit. Our search ended when the City of Belmont offered us the lease on the Manor House in Twin Pines Park, and it became our “starter home” in 2003. We incorporated as the Peninsula Museum of Art and were granted 501(c)3 status in 2004.

Our primary source of operating funds since 2000 has been the O.P. Decker Foundation. The late Arabella Decker was a founding PMA Board Member, painter and sculptor, whose art stretched the minds of viewers. Her influence with artists and art lovers in San Mateo County lasted decades and is enduring.

The Manor House served us well as a starter home, but we kept our long-term goal in sight: a building with space for multiple galleries, a Museum Store, studios for professional artists, a classroom. . .

The dream gained credibility in November of 2005 when a life-long artist and Museum supporter, Ruth Silnes, introduced me to her friend Charles Homer, who was interested in using his money to make a difference in the community. Bottom line: he wrote us a check for $1 million to launch our Building Fund.

The Homer donation made it possible to remodel a 18,000 sq.ft. building in Burlingame which was ready for us to occupy in 2013. Sadly, after seven years of successful museum exhibitions and abundant creativity on behalf of our studio artists, our lease was terminated and we were forced out for site redevelopment during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. This event also prompted my retirement.

Fortunately, Peninsula Museum of Art was contacted by The Shops at Tanforan in San Bruno and reopened there with new leadership in 2021. 

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