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Mary Curran Papers


Held at: Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives [Contact Us]Philadelphia Museum of Art, PO Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

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Born in 1885, Mary Florence Curran grew up in North Adams, a city in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Dr. Charles J. Curran and Katherine Lally. Like her father, Mary's three brothers practiced medicine. She had at least one sister, Agnes. In 1908 Mary received an A.B. from the College of New Rochelle (New York), where she studied English Literature with a minor in history. She later attended classes at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) and Boston College, respectively studying creative writing and psychology, contemporary painting and sculpture, and the history of art. She also took several summer courses in painting and drawing at the Art Student League in New York City and studied for one year with the noted American painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton.

While the men in the Curran family focused on health care, Mary devoted most of her professional life to some of the most progressive practices in social reform and relief during the first half of the 20th century. She played a significant role in the education of young working women, which segued into the promotion of modern art in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the management of the federal relief programs for artists in that state during most of the 1930s.

Upon graduating college, Curran taught English literature and composition in the local high school for almost a decade. In 1919, she organized the first working girls'club in North Adams, and served as its first executive secretary. These girls' clubs, which numbered more than 2,700 by the turn of the century, were originally chartered as working women's clubs. As Curran herself explains in a 1921 report, the new name was "so much more workable and likable than our old..." Whatever negative connotations were associated at the time to working women, the mission of these clubs was to enrich their lives by creating "wholesome outlets" with instruction in skills such as dressmaking, cooking, first aid, dramatics, dancing, bowling and woodwork. Under Curran's later tenure as girls' club director in Philadelphia, the curriculum expanded to challenge these young minds, encouraging critical and creative thinking. Prior to coming to the Philadelphia, Curran relocated first to New York City in 1919 to work as editor of "The Club Worker," the educational journal published by the National League of Girls' Clubs. She held that position until 1921, at which time she moved to the Philadelphia area to join the staff of the first summer school offered by Bryn Mawr College for "women workers in industry." By the fall of that year she accepted the position of Executive Director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Section of the National League of Girls' Clubs. The office was located at 1525 Locust Street in Philadelphia. Under Curran's direction, the club built an education program that by 1922 included classes in psychology, ethics, oral English and "self-expression," as well as discussions about politics, peace, child labor and racism. Classes were offered at night and on weekends. Girls could also attend summer camps such as that offered at Whitford Lodge, a country club less than 30 miles from the city. By 1925 Curran's program began attracting young men, and in the fall of 1927, the League broke from the national girls' organization to operate as the New Students League (NSL). As such, the League was open to young working women and men, most between the ages of 16 and 30. For five dollars a year, members could take classes, have access to a library, receive medical examinations and services, attend Sunday teas that featured prominent speakers, summer at Whitford Lodge (at extra expense), partake in dances, parties, hikes, visit art galleries and participate in round table discussions.

The New Students League also offered Curran a venue to exhibit works of art by contemporary artists. From March 26 to April 4, 1928, the League hosted the First Philadelphia Independent Artists' Exhibition, which was a non-juried show for which an artist could enter for three dollars. As Curran wrote to invited artists, the exhibition was necessary as Philadelphia was "little acquainted with the contemporary spirit in art," and lacked exposure to "progressives." (The show was the League's second exhibition; the first, held in 1927, featured the murals of Thomas Hart Benton.) Artists exhibiting included George Biddle, Charles Demuth, Franklin Watkins, Thomas Hart Benton, Julian Levi, and Leon Kelly. The exhibition encouraged Curran to devote League space solely to modern art. By the end of the year, another exhibition opened in what became known as the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art.

In March 1930, the Little Gallery relocated to 1324 Spruce Street, just two blocks from its former address. By the spring of 1933, it had hosted more than 15 exhibitions featuring the works of other contemporary artists such as Adolph Borie, Arthur B. Carles, Georgia O'Keeffe, Maurice Sterne, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Such efforts also put Curran in touch with Fiske Kimball, the director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (which served as the name of the Philadelphia Museum of Art until 1938). The Depression, and more specifically, the government's measures to curtail its effect on American artists, furthered their professional relationship and cultivated a friendship that lasted another 15 years. Both Curran and Kimball held state positions within the government's first relief program for unemployed artists, the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP) funded by the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The goal of the project was to employ artists to produce art that would decorate public buildings. At the time of the program's announcement in December 1933, Kimball was named Chairman for the Philadelphia area, another PMA curator, Henri Marceau was named Secretary, and Mary Curran was the Clerk. Their area, identified as Region 3, consisted of all of Pennsylvania east of the Susquehanna River, including Delaware and New Jersey. By the termination of the project in May 1934, Curran was acting as regional director. The Little Gallery served as the PWAP headquarters, and stopped functioning as an art gallery. Curran and Kimball oversaw the assignment of work to artists, which resulted in a total of 1,200 works of art in the district. Before the program ended, an exhibition of 600 PWAP works was held in April 1934 at the Lincoln-Liberty Building, located in center city at Broad and Chestnut Streets. On display were murals, paintings, sculpture and etchings. Although the Little Gallery ceased its operation during this period, Curran did manage to continue its mission in part. In January 1934 she organized another Philadelphia Independent Artists' Exhibition. This one, however, was held in the Crozer Building at 1420 Chestnut Street. The one exhibition held at the Little Gallery during this period featured a Philadelphia artist long-associated with the gallery, Julius Bloch. The show, which ran November/December 1934, consisted of his paintings, drawings and prints.

Curran continued to head the district's relief programs that followed the PWAP. She served as state director for the Emergency Work Relief Program's Art Project, which operated from January to July 1935, and then as state director/special representative of the Federal Art Project (FAP), which began in December 1935 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA, which in 1939 became the Work Projects Administration). Once again, the works of art produced would be available for city, state and federal offices, departments, public schools, libraries and museums. The initiation of these new projects under Curran's direction came under public attack. In 1935, the Federation of Art Workers began their protest of Curran's handling of artist assignments and not doing enough to exhibit their work. They wrote letters of complaint to Curran, held public meetings, and published their protest in journals and newspapers. Joining the attack was Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a well-known art collector who made his fortune with the development of Argyrol, an antiseptic drug. Barnes was also a frequent critic of Fiske Kimball and the Pennsylvania Museum of Art. The relief project, therefore, provided two targets for the doctor. By 1937, the Artists' Union took the lead in attacking Curran. In their formal complaint, issued in May of that year, they accused Curran of "incompetency, mismanagement and anti-union activity." Much publicity was devoted to these events, with both sides receiving their share of support and criticism. Despite the fray, the program remained productive. In May 1937, Curran organized a two-week exhibition of FAP work that was held at 1607 Walnut Street. Included in the show were prints and drawings by artists working on a special FAP project, the Index of American Design, which was a pictorial survey of the development of design in American decorative arts.

In February 1938, after a state advisory committee investigated the charges, Ellen S. Woodward, Assistant Administrator for the WPA, announced that the appointed subcommittee "indorses [sic] the policies of the present administration." Committee head Horace H. F. Jayne, however, did advise that the project in Pennsylvania might be strengthened, and that recommendations would come.

Perhaps based on such recommendations, it was later announced that the state headquarters would move from Philadelphia to the state capital of Harrisburg no later than July 1, 1938. By September, Curran had relocated and was working as an Assistant State Director for Western Pennsylvania, District 15, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh). In December, she was terminated.

Curran followed this work with a variety of jobs. She did some freelance writing on art history, taught at a junior college and worked briefly in retail. From 1942 to 1943, she worked in Boston, conducting club and recreation activities at a settlement house and at a music settlement house. She also worked for the Journal of Education in advertising sales. She continued working for the publication as a staff assistant when she moved to New York in the fall of 1944. Her last noted position was in 1949 with the Greater New York Fund, also in the city. By the age of 73, Curran remained devoted to the arts as she exhibited a drawing in an annual show held in the Berkshires (Massachusetts). As noted in a local newspaper, her work entitled "Sleeping" was "certainly one of the best items in the show, with a close communion of the body with the earth." Curran died in 1976.

A portion of the material in Series I. "Working women's clubs" predates Curran's involvement in the organizations. In particular are the late 19th-century minute books of the Philadelphia Association of Working Women's Societies and the 1897 scrapbook of the Third Triennial Convention of Working Women's Clubs, which was held in Philadelphia. The convention led to the organization of the National League of Women Workers, which later became the National League of Girls' Clubs. Documentation of the national organization consists of clippings, several pamphlets and a 1921 report prepared by Curran summarizing publicity for the club. On the state level, there are several clippings and newsletter from Massachusetts and ephemera pertaining to New York clubs. Most state material pertains to the Pennsylvania Association of Working Women's Societies, which later operated as the Eastern Pennsylvania League of Girls' Clubs. Beginning in 1921, Curran served as Executive Director of the League for nearly seven years. Documentation from that time consists primarily of correspondence and newspaper clippings. Much of the ephemera pertain to the organization's emphasis on education. There is also material pertaining to the summer programs, particularly the one offered at Whitford Lodge. Documentation consists of correspondence, 1925-1930, clippings, photographs, legal papers, a journal (author unidentified) and some memorabilia pertaining to a production called "Pirates." Other summer programs documented include the Summer School for Women Works in Industry, held at Bryn Maw College and another program at Miller's Place in Long Island, New York. A scrapbook of 1919-1924 clippings also chronicles the Pennsylvania League's activities.

Series II. "New Students League and the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art" documents the next phase of Curran's career. With young men expressing an interest in attending League programs, a new club was chartered in 1927 that welcomed male membership. With this change, the new organization withdrew from the National League of Girls' Clubs and began operating as the New Students League. Correspondence, which comprises much of the documentation, deals primarily with the operation of the League, staffing, and fundraising. There are also other papers regarding curriculum and programming. In addition to the educational programs, the League became a venue for exhibitions of modern art, to which Curran felt Philadelphians lacked adequate exposure and appreciation. After holding two such shows in 1927 and the spring of the following year, Curran made the exhibition space a permanent feature, and on December 8, 1928, the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art opened. In 1930 the gallery relocated, although it remained in center city. Documentation of the exhibitions held from 1927 to 1934 consists primarily of announcements, clippings, invitation lists and some correspondence. While this material is arranged in annual chronological order, the material that follows consists of several folders of correspondence with artists who exhibited often at the gallery; namely Julius Bloch, Leon Kelly and Dan Rasmussen. Correspondence with other artists is included in individual exhibition files. There are also photographs and copyprints of works of art and a number of prints, perhaps retained for reference. The series ends with a significant amount of printed material, chronologically arranged from 1923 to 1938, with two folders of undated pieces. The material, primarily published by art museums, galleries, art institutions and clubs in Philadelphia and New York City, consists of bulletins, exhibition catalogues and checklists, auction and collection catalogs, press releases, and ephemera including postcards and price lists for books and art reproductions. Exhibitions held at Macy's, Gimbels, and Wanamakers department stores are documented here, as well as a 1925 sculpture competition sponsored by Proctor & Gamble for which white soap was the designated medium. Also of note is a barter exhibition conducted by the Philadelphia Sketch Club in the early 1930s. Curran no doubt compiled this material as reference during her tenure as gallery director and continued the collection during her five years managing the government-sponsored relief programs for Pennsylvania artists, which is the subject of the next series.

Series III. "Federal Art Project and earlier relief programs" is the largest group of records in the collection, measuring approximately 3.5 linear feet, and the most complete in documentation of subject. Along with Fiske Kimball, director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Curran worked on each of the government relief programs funded first through the Civil Works Administration and then the Works Progress Administration. As Clerk and then Regional Director of the first government relief program, the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), Curran was responsible for selecting Pennsylvania artists who qualified to create works of art for public buildings. Because so many artists lived in the area, Philadelphia served as headquarters for the region, and the Little Gallery served as its physical office space. Documentation begins with the December 1933 announcement of the project and continues with letters from artists requesting project applications and the submitted applications. Both Curran and Kimball made notations on the latter, usually remarking on the artist's economic needs and talent. The selected artists would report on a fairly regular basis the progress of their work. Most are in the form of correspondence. There is other correspondence and notes pertaining to the project, but most of the remaining material consists of clippings from newspapers and magazines. Another significant document is Curran's report of the allocation of the art, identifying the buildings that requested works of art and the artists and titles of works fulfilling those requests. There are two copies of this report, with one annotated differently than the other. The records continue as documentation of the WPA's Federal Art Project, which began in 1935. While there is some correspondence on the operation of the project, most of the material focuses on the artist unions that criticized Curran's management, calling for her resignation. Most of the material consists of correspondence, flyers, clippings, and meeting summaries pertaining to the protests of the Federation of Art Workers and the Artists Union. It should be noted that Curran filed letters received during the regular course of business expressing appreciation of the project and her work on it as "Friends letters to Edward Jones and Holger Cahill, etc." (Edward N. Jones was a Pennsylvania state administrator for the WPA. Cahill headed the art project on the federal level.) As noted by the authors, some of these letters were sent intentionally in support of Curran to counter the negative publicity. Also included here is the formal complaint issued by the Artists Union in May 1937, as well as the report submitted in rebuttal, which challenged the letters and testimony given against the project. There are also several issues of the Artists Union bulletins and ephemera that address their challenge not only of Curran but Kimball as well. The remainder of material includes general correspondence, as well as a folder of 1938 correspondence and other papers pertaining to the headquarter relocation to Harrisburg, Curran's transfer to the Pittsburgh office and her termination at year's end. There are also clippings primarily about the art project on a local basis, and photographs of what appears to be the May 1937 exhibition of FAP work. A poster and some newsclippings document the exhibition held at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art the following year. Documentation of the Index of American Design, which was part of the FAP, consists of a few reports and notes about ornamental cast iron and Pennsylvania German decorative arts as surveyed respectively by Katherine Mihous and by Frances Lichten. Summarizing the FAP, Curran prepared a report of the project under her direction, from October 1935 to July 1938. The final report along with two files of working papers and a draft are included here. The series ends with photographs, including approximately 30 taken of Philadelphia landmarks, buildings and street scenes taken by Charles Ogle, who did some FAP work, as well as photographs primarily of murals created by Jose Clemente Orozco, Henry Billings and Boardman Robinson. It is unclear if these are FAP works. Although originally housed in a WPA envelope, the copyprints of works by Albert Pinkham Ryder may have been compiled by Curran for the exhibition she held at the gallery prior to the government projects. There are also several oversized sheets with a dozen pencil sketches that appear to be ideas for posters of places to visit in the city, as well as one with a heading that warns "Don't take risks."

The final series, "Personal papers," consists primarily of correspondence and sketches. Curran's brother William was her most frequent correspondent. There are five brief letters from Fiske Kimball, written each December from 1942 to 1946, to thank her for remembering his birthday. In his 1944 correspondence, Kimball reflects on the great pleasure of their collaboration on the FAP, and he reminds her that although "others thought it wiser to yield to the pressure for a new administrator, [this] should not blind you to the fact that your administration was not only the longest but one of the very most successful in any quarter." Far more lengthy and packed with some gossipy details are the two letters the artist, and at this time Pfc., Dan Rasmusson wrote to Curran in 1941 and 1942 while he was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He mentions in one letter becoming very intimate with another Philadelphia artist Emlen Etting and his wife, writer/photographer Gloria since their move back to town to work at the Stage Door Canteen. There are also several folders of sketches. Compared to the few signed, most appear to be in Curran's hand. A few sketches are autographed by others to Curran. Other material includes biographical information of Curran, provided in the form of resumes, notes, and forms, a few 1950-1960 exhibition catalogues and checklists, other ephemera, photographs and various papers and notes on subjects such as taxes and genealogy. It is unclear if Curran collected the unsigned greeting cards and postcards as memorabilia or pictorial reference.

A folder-level inventory for the entire collection is available in the Archives, in paper and electronic formats. The inventories provided by the donor were revised although item-level descriptions for certain folders have been retained, as well as many of the folder titles.

The collection is arranged by organization, in the order of Curran's professional development. The material is therefore in general chronological order, with personal papers as the final series.

Gift of Antoinette Frederick, 2005 and 2008.

These materials were arranged and described by Bertha Adams. Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams
Finding Aid Date
Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services
Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

The Mary Curran Papers are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes where stated.

Collection Inventory

Working women's clubs, 1891-1930, undated. 3 linear feet.
Physical Description

3 linear feet

New Students League and the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1927-1938, undated. 3.25 linear feet.
Physical Description

3.25 linear feet

Federal Art Project and earlier relief programs, 1933-1938, undated. 3.5 linear feet.
Physical Description

3.5 linear feet

Personal papers, 1926-1963, undated. 0.75 linear foot.
Physical Description

0.75 linear foot

Print, Suggest