Sullivan, Mary Quinn (1877–1939)

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Sullivan, Mary Quinn (1877–1939)

Art collector who was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Name variations: Mrs. Cornelius Sullivan. Born Mary Josephine Quinn in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 24, 1877; died on December 5, 1939; eldest daughter of Thomas Quinn and Anne (Gleason) Quinn; attended Shortridge High School; studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City; studied at the Slade School for Fine Art of University College, London; married Cornelius Joseph Sullivan (an attorney and art collector), on November 21, 1917 (died 1932); no children.

Mary Quinn Sullivan was the eldest of eight children of Thomas and Anne Quinn of Indianapolis, Indiana; both parents were descended from Irish Roman Catholic families. Thomas had settled in the Indianapolis area 20 years prior to Mary's birth in 1877, and made a living as a farmer just outside the city. The Quinn children were raised in an atmosphere conducive to the free development of their talents, and Mary enjoyed her first training in art at the Shortridge High School. She enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York City in 1899 and within two years had completed her studies and was working as a drawing instructor at a school in Queens. The New York City Board of Education then selected her to travel to Europe in 1902 to observe art schools there. While in France and Italy, Mary particularly appreciated Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Upon her return home, she assumed greater responsibilities as the supervisor of drawing for the city-wide network of elementary schools, and secretary of the New York High School Teachers' Association. Although by 1909 she had ascended professionally to the head of the art department of DeWitt Clinton High School, she resigned that position to acquire additional training. In 1910, she entered the program at the Slade School of Fine Art, which was attached to the University College in London. This resulted in a post as instructor of design and household arts and sciences at her alma mater, Pratt Institute. In 1914, she contributed a textbook, Planning and Furnishing the Home: Practical and Economical Suggestions for the Homemaker, to the school and also provided occupational therapists with art training during World War I.

In 1917, Mary resigned from her position at Pratt and married New York attorney and art collector Cornelius Joseph Sullivan. Together, they collected rare paintings and entertained a wide circle of diverse friends at their home in Astoria, Queens. Among the works they purchased by modern artists were Paul Cézanne's Madame Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Woman in the Garden of Mr. Forest, George Rouault's Crucifixion, Amedeo Modigliani's Sculptured Head of a Woman, and a Picasso. The Sullivan collection also included 16th-century works, as well as silver and furniture.

Mary Sullivan's friends in the art world encouraged her to foster art through donations and active collecting. Her association with Katherine Dreier and Margaret Dreier Robins , both noted suffragists and settlement-house workers, led to her interest in modern art, which was reinforced by her relationships with prominent art collectors and patrons such as Lillie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller . Artist Arthur B. Davies persuaded Sullivan and Bliss to donate funds to the landmark Armory Show of 1913.

Sullivan's circle of art-patron friends generated the concept of the Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1920s, although specific action was not taken until after Davies' death in 1928. Sullivan was among the seven trustees to sign the charter for the museum, housed in a New York brownstone, in 1929. Its first exhibition, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, opened to the public in November of that year. The museum moved to more permanent quarters in 1932, and managed to survive the rocky financial times of the Depression through generous funding from Sullivan and others. In addition to her work as a trustee, Sullivan chaired the extension and furnishing committees for new galleries. Cornelius Sullivan was equally invested in the museum's success, using his skills in the legal profession to act as counsel to the museum. In 1933, the year after he died, Mary Sullivan resigned as trustee, but accepted a position as honorary trustee for life in 1935. Although firmly ensconced in New York, Sullivan also devoted her energy to develop the artistic environment of her hometown of Indianapolis by founding the Gamboliers' Society, designed to purchase art for the John Herron Art Institute.

During the last ten years of her life, Sullivan was involved in gallery work, presenting solo shows for such artists as Peter Hurd in her own gallery on East 56th Street, and setting up a small, two-room gallery within the larger gallery owned by Lois Shaw . Just two years before her death she auctioned off her husband's extensive collection, possibly because of precarious financial circumstances, and poor health necessitated the closing of her gallery in 1939. While preparing to auction off her own art collection—numbering around 200 pieces—Sullivan succumbed to a combination of pleurisy and diabetes on December 5, 1939. Already scheduled for the following day, the auction revealed Sullivan's keen judgment and refined taste in art with she had amassed an impressive collection over her lifetime. Her longtime friend Abby Aldrich Rockefeller purchased a Modigliani and an André De-rain for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Sullivan's memory.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York

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Sullivan, Mary Quinn (1877–1939)

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