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.