Mary Quinn Sullivan

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Mary Quinn Sullivan
Mary Quinn Sullivan.jpg
Mary Josephine Quinn

(1877-11-24)November 24, 1877
DiedDecember 5, 1939(1939-12-05) (aged 62)
Resting placeHoly Cross Cemetery,
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
EducationPratt Institute,
Slade School of Fine Art, London
Known formodern art collector,
founding trustee of the Museum of Modern Art
Spouse(s)Cornelius J. Sullivan
(1917–1932, his death)
Parent(s)Thomas F. Quinn,
Anne E. Gleason Quinn

Mary Quinn Sullivan (November 24, 1877 – December 5, 1939) was born Mary Josephine Quinn in Indianapolis, Indiana to Thomas F. Quinn and Anne E. Gleason Quinn; she was a pioneer modern art collector and one of the founding trustees of the Museum of Modern Art.

Education, teaching and marriage[edit]

Sullivan attended public schools in Indianapolis including the Shortridge High School, and in 1899 moved to New York City to study art at the Pratt Institute. In 1901 she was hired as an art teacher in the Queens, New York school system. The New York Board of Education sent her abroad to observe the curriculum of art schools in England, Scotland, and Germany. She traveled to France and Italy during this trip and there she was exposed to the modern art movements of the time (Impressionism and Post-Impressionism). Sullivan rented a room in the Brooklyn Heights home of Theodor Dreier during the early 20th century and was a friend of Katherine Dreier - the two studied old masters in Europe together in 1902-1903 and Sullivan is listed as a member of the Société Anonyme in Dreier's archives.

In 1909 Sullivan became the head of the art department at the DeWitt Clinton High School and supervised the drawing curriculum in New York City elementary schools in addition to serving as secretary of the New York High School Teacher's Association. In 1910 she resigned her many posts to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, taking classes from critic and artist Roger Fry. Upon her return she accepted a position at Pratt as an instructor of design and household arts and sciences, authoring a textbook entitled Planning and Furnishing the Home: Practical and Economical Suggestions for the Homemaker.

She married Cornelius J. Sullivan in 1917; he was a prominent lawyer who specialized in managing large trusts and divorce proceedings for the wealthy, was a member of the New York Board of Education, and he was a friend of art and manuscript collector John Quinn - both he and this titan of the art world shared an enthusiasm for collecting in addition to identifying as "Irish patriots." C. J. Sullivan was a collector of rare books and manuscripts, antiques and art. Mary and Cornelius established a home in the Hell's Gate area of Astoria, Queens (the neighborhood is now occupied by the Con Ed plant in Queens) and entertained artists, writers, and politicians. Here they began a spectacular collection of European and American art and American and Irish antiques which included Modigliani's Sculptured Head of a Woman (acquired from Leopold Zborowski), Cézanne's Madame Cézanne, a Hepplewhite desk which once belonged to Degas, Rouault's Crucifixion, Mlle. Ravoux by Van Gogh, and The New Novel by Winslow Homer, to name but a few. The two often spent summers in Ireland, and maintained a second home on Block Island, Rhode Island.

After her marriage, Sullivan was a strong supporter of many philanthropic causes. She served as the president of the Needle and Bobbin Club in New York City, a ladies' group which sold lacework for charity (most notably works by women in poorhouses at Blackwell's Island) and she herself gave lectures about the history of lacework on behalf of the club and supported causes like the Handwork Centre at 511 Madison Avenue that sold toys made by the elderly, infirm, and unemployed. Sullivan also organized a group of patrons of the Indianapolis Museum of Art who called themselves the Gamboliers; these patrons donated modest sums toward the purchase of works chosen by Sullivan which were then given in the group's name. As late as 1921, Sullivan was noted to be the secretary and chairman of the New York Society of Occupation Therapy, which operated a summer program at Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, New York that taught the basics of art and applied arts instruction to hospital aides and nurses.

The Museum of Modern Art[edit]

During the 1920s Sullivan established friendships with art patrons Lillie Plummer Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and in 1929 a luncheon with collector A. Conger Goodyear developed definite plans for a new museum of modern art in New York City. Goodyear signed on as chairman, and a space for the museum was rented at 730 Fifth Avenue. Sullivan resigned her trustee position on the museum's board on October 17, 1933 due to financial difficulties and was made an honorary trustee for life in 1935.

A collection dispersed[edit]

In 1932, Sullivan opened an art gallery on E. 56th St. in New York City which moved to a space in Lois Shaw's gallery on Park Avenue. Her gallery hosted exhibitions of Chaim Soutine's work amongst others. She employed a young Betty Parsons at this gallery, who acknowledged that Ms. Sullivan's business sense and taste made an enduring impression on her. Sullivan's husband died in 1932, and she sold a portion of his collection at Anderson Galleries in April 1937. In late 1939 Sullivan became ill and consigned further pieces from their collection for auction at Parke-Bernet (later Sotheby's). She died in Astoria, Queens, New York of complications from pleurisy and diabetes on the night before the two-night sale (December 6 – 7 1939), which was by all accounts one of the benchmark art auctions of the first half of the 20th century. She is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Indianapolis Indiana.


  • "Notable American Women 1607–1950", ed. Edward T. James, Belknap Press, 1971, pg. 408-410.
  • Time Magazine, "Pioneer", December 18, 1939.
  • Quinn family letter written by sister Katherine for Mary Quinn's eulogy, 1939-1940.
  • "Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: Patron of the Modern", Mary Jeffers, The Magazine Antiques, November 2004.