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Mary Curran Papers

Identifier: MCP

Scope and Contents

Series I. “Working women’s clubs” includes minute books, scrapbooks, photographs, clippings and ephemera related to the organization and activities of working women’s clubs. A portion of the material from the late nineteenth century predates Curran's involvement in the organizations. Documentation of the National League of Women Workers (later National League of Girls’ Clubs) consists of issues of The Club Worker, pamphlets, oversize banners, and a 1921 report prepared by Curran summarizing publicity for the club. Most state material pertains to the Pennsylvania Association of Women Workers, 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, ledgers, newspaper clippings, and ephemera related to the organization's educational efforts. Much of the material focuses on Whitford Lodge, the site of summer programs for the League. Writing and illustrations by Curran are present throughout this series.

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 deals primarily with the operations, staffing, and fundraising. Communication with individual artists include George Biddle, Leon Kelly, Franklin Watkins, Julius Bloch, and Daniel Rasmusson. Board minutes reveal important decisions and change of leadership for the New Students League. In addition to the educational programs, the League became a venue for exhibitions of modern art, which Curran felt would be a beneficial addition in Philadelphia. 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. Exhibition files are arranged chronologically and consist primarily of artwork checklists, announcements, clippings, invitation lists and some related correspondence, including that with Jose Clemente Orozco. The “Notes” subseries contains the lists of contacts, drafts, and notes related to the New Students League fundraising, mission, and curriculum, created by Curran during her tenure as Director of the League. The bulk of the subseries “Ephemera and clippings” consists of bulletins, exhibition catalogues and checklists, auction and collection catalogs, press releases, and ephemera from art museums, galleries, art institutions and clubs in Philadelphia and New York City, compiled by Curran. Exhibitions held at Macy's, Gimbels, and Wanamaker’s department stores are documented. Also of note is a barter exhibition conducted by the Philadelphia Sketch Club in the early 1930s. The series ends with photographs and copy prints of works of art as well as a few related to the New Students League.

Series III. "Federal Art Project and earlier relief programs" is the largest group of records in the collection 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. Over half of the correspondence are requests for project applications and work reports by artists while employed by relief programs, which were sent to Curran on a regular basis (see File notes for artist names). Of interest is Earl Horter’s letter to Mary Curran on behalf of Dox Thrash, whose application can be found under “Artist applications: Never filed. S-Z” in the “Records” subseries. Horter writes that Thrash is experiencing extreme financial hardship and that the quality of his work is above that of an average artist. Also present is communication with Holger Cahill, Director of the Federal Art Project, Thomas C. Parker, Assistant Director of the Federal Art Project, and Anna Lebengood, State Director, Division Women's and Professional Projects under the Pennsylvania WPA. It should be noted that Curran originally 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." As noted by the authors, some of these letters were sent intentionally in support of Curran to counter the vocal negative publicity about the project’s administration. The remainder of material includes general business correspondence, as well as a file pertaining to the headquarter relocation to Harrisburg, Curran's transfer to the Pittsburgh office and her termination in 1938.

The Records subseries includes artist applications, many with notations by Curran and Fiske Kimball remarking on the artist’s economic needs or talent, and in some cases commentary on the artist’s race. There are several official reports and annotated drafts, including that of the allocation of the artwork from these projects, identifying the buildings that requested works of art and the artists and titles of works fulfilling those requests. Curran prepared a report summarizing the Federal Art Project’s activities under her leadership from October 1935 to July 1938. Documentation of the Index of American Design, a major program under the FAP, consists of a few reports and notes about ornamental cast iron and Pennsylvania German decorative arts as surveyed respectively by Katherine Milhous and Frances Lichten. The final report along with two files of working papers and a draft are included here. Besides this documentation of the Federal Art Project, a large part of this material focuses on the Federation of Art Workers and the Artists Union Philadelphia who criticized Curran's management, calling for her resignation. Included here is the formal complaint issued by the Artists Union in May 1937, as well as the report submitted in rebuttal.

Clippings in this series parallel the subject of the records and reports, primarily about the art project on a local basis and criticism of the Federal Art Project under Mary Curran and Fiske Kimball. A poster and some newspaper clippings document the exhibition held at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art the following year. The series ends with photographs, including approximately 30 taken of Philadelphia landmarks, buildings and street scenes taken by Charles Ogle, as well as photographs primarily of murals created by Jose Clemente Orozco, Henry Billings and Boardman Robinson. It is unclear if these are works created for the Federal Art Project. 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. Photographs include those from exhibitions held at the Little Gallery and various venues that held Federal Art Project shows. Mary Curran can be seen in several photographs from these gallery receptions.

The final Series IV. "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. 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." Other material includes resumes and forms that provide biographical information, a collection of blank greeting cards from the 1930s forward, photographs, and various clippings.


  • 1891-1978, undated


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

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.

Biographical / Historical

Born December 22, 1885, Mary Florence Curran grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, 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, Massachusetts, the University of Pennsylvania, 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. Mary devoted her professional life to progressive practices in social reform and relief during the first half of the 20th century. She played a role in the education of young working women, which segued into the promotion of modern art in Philadelphia and the management of the federal relief programs for artists in Pennsylvania during 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 women’s 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. The mission of these clubs was to enrich the lives of working women 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 social program began attracting young men, and in the fall of 1927, the League broke from the national 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 museum 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, the well-known art collector. 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 of Philadelphia 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 Federal Art Project work that was held at 1607 Walnut Street. Included in the show were prints and drawings by artists working on a special 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 November 1978 and is buried in North Adams, Massachusetts.


10.5 linear feet

Language of Materials



Mary Curran's (1885-1978) papers primarily document the roles she held in working women’s associations, the coeducational New Students League and Little Gallery of Contemporary Art of Philadelphia, and the management of federal relief programs for artists in Pennsylvania during most of the 1930s. The material is arranged in four series: I. Working women's clubs; II. New Students League and the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art; III. Federal Art Project and earlier relief programs; and IV. Personal papers. The bulk of documentation consists of correspondence, clippings, photographs, exhibition files, documentation of federal relief work, and fifteen years’ worth of bulletins, catalogs and ephemera, primarily from Philadelphia and New York museums, galleries and art alliances. Correspondents include prominent Philadelphia artists, such as Julius Bloch, Leon Kelly, Franklin Watkins, and George Biddle.

Custodial History

Gift of Antoinette Frederick, 2005 and 2008.

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Bertha Adams. Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services. Processing was completed by Molly Reynolds with funding from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Women's Committee in 2020.

Guide to the Mary Curran Papers
Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams in 2007. Finding aid completed by Molly Reynolds in 2020.
2011, 2020
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2007. Processing was completed in 2020 and funded by a grant from the Philadelphia Museum of Art Women's Committee.

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States