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Mabel B. Curtis Files Regarding the People's Art Center

Identifier: A0353

Scope and Contents

The Mabel B. Curtis Files consist mainly of papers regarding the People’s Art Center. The primary focus of these papers is the years of direct involvement by Mrs. Curtis in her capacity as executive director from 1950 to 1963. The collection also includes papers from the founding of the People’s Art Center in 1942. Most of the materials from the 1940s are from Elizabeth Green. The primary focus of this collection is on the difficulties the People’s Art Center faced in trying to reconcile its stated philosophy with its corporate practices, especially in the turbulent racial atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The collection includes the center’s founding records and several written histories and minutes from board of directors meetings and other committees. The minutes and reports are not complete. It appears that when Mabel Curtis realized the racial and financial issues within the center were becoming more rancorous, she began saving and copying correspondence and related information. Thus, the bulk of materials are from the mid-1950s onward. Series I: Legal and Administrative Papers contains the truncated legal and administrative papers of the People’s Art Center, from the articles of incorporation in 1943 to the by-laws and personnel codes of the 1960s. Series II: Statement of Purpose/History contains founding statements and histories of the center and its members, along with a scrapbook titled “A Glimpse of Activities” from 1945. Series III: Annual Reports consists of annual reports in brochure form, with several years missing. Series IV: Financial Records contains financial records. These incomplete records include financial statements, balance sheets, and income and expense reports, both actual and estimated. This series also includes numbered receipts for classes, art materials, contributions, memberships, and rent for part of 1961 and all of 1962. Series V: Organizational Records is the largest series and contains organizational records. This series is divided into eight subseries and includes records for the board of directors, the Executive Committee, the Research and Building Fund Committees, the Nominating and Membership Committees, the Personnel Committee, other committees, outside funding, and the Elizabeth Green papers. Most of the records on the growing tension surrounding Mabel Curtis and the center are included in Subseries B, the Executive Committee. Series VI: Class Schedules and Teachers contains class schedules and teachers information. This is an incomplete listing of class schedules for various times and places, including extension classes. Some breakdown on enrollment figures, with race, location, regular school attended, and child and adult divisions are noted. Current teachers, with educational and work experiences, are listed in each annual report from the third series. Series VII: Exhibition Records contains limited exhibition records and also includes brochures on related art openings, conference materials and reports, and brochures from similar art centers. Series VIII: New Location of the People’s Art Center consists of limited information on the center and its activities between 1964 and 1968. Series IX: Mabel B. Curtis Personal Papers contains personal papers of Mabel Curtis. Series X: Miscellany consists of one folder of miscellaneous items.


  • 1941-1968; 1989


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, quote from, or reproduce material in this collection, please contact the Archives Reference Desk at Copyright restrictions may apply. The researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming to the laws of copyright.

Historical Sketch

The People’s Art Center began as a Works Progress Administration Missouri Artists’ Project for artists registered on federal relief. An interracial Sponsoring Committee, meeting in 1941, decided to form a community arts center to serve all races, creeds, and colors. Using WPA art teachers and workmen, and private funds for supplies, the committee rented a building from the Episcopal Church of Holy Communion, where interracial art classes were held for children and adults. After the termination of support from the WPA in 1943, the members of the Sponsoring Committee incorporated the People’s Art Center Association as a non-profit organization. At the time of incorporation, Elizabeth Green was the acting chairman, Anna Hensley was the secretary, and Henry S. Williams was the treasurer. Elizabeth Green maintained strong ties to the People’s Art Center, serving on the Executive Committee and the board of directors. Green also raised funds for the center through her connections with wealthy art patrons in St. Louis and around the country. In 1945, the board of directors read like a “who’s who” of influential black and white St. Louisans, including President Charles Nagel, director of the City Art Museum; John T. Clark, executive secretary of the Urban League of St. Louis; Fannie Cook, noted author; and Reverend Hohenschild of the Episcopal Church of Holy Communion. In 1949, Mabel Curtis (1896-1988) served as president of the board of directors. The following year marked the beginning of her salaried employment at the People’s Art Center. Mrs. Curtis served as the executive director from 1950 to 1963. As an outspoken critic of racial segregation and discrimination, she ran into trouble with the more conservative members of the board of directors. Although cognizant of the fact that they served an interracial organization, these board members nevertheless were wary of too hasty a program for ending racial segregation and in some cases refused to respond to areas deemed as outside the “proper” provenance of the People’s Art Center. In 1962, Mabel Curtis resigned as executive director of the center, and briefly came back to serve as an unpaid director in 1963. Ultimately, her advanced age and her refusal to be mollified on racial issues led to her break with the center. As a small interracial group operating in a segregated city, the People’s Art Center depended upon financial backing from its members and students through membership dues and class fees. Ultimately, these funds were not enough to support the center. The center was granted financial support from the United Charities, which in 1945 became known as the Greater St. Louis Community Chest. The People’s Art Center applied for and received funding from the United Fund, which by 1956 included the Greater St. Louis Community Chest. In 1960, the United Fund eliminated funding for the center. The Spirit of St. Louis Fund was formed in 1960 to provide resources for the People’s Art Center and other social and cultural groups dropped by the United Fund. A 1963 survey commissioned by Civic Progress, Inc. led to the formation of the Greater St. Louis Arts Council. Coincidentally, around this time the Spirit Fund dissolved and future funding for the center from the new Arts Council was doubtful. According to Mabel Curtis, a probable factor in the center’s funding problems was the hostile racial climate in the city of St. Louis, which in turn was reflected in the leadership of the various civic groups. The People’s Art Center was not immune from these divisive struggles. Mabel Curtis was censured by the board leaders for her outspoken condemnation of segregation and her refusal to let the hypocrisy of board meetings held in segregated facilities go unnoticed. Racial tensions and financial uncertainties proved to be the downfall of the People’s Art Center. Mabel Curtis’s association with the center apparently ended in 1963. A newspaper notice dated March 21, 1968, provides the final story on the People’s Art Center. The notice is for a trustee’s sale of the property belonging to the center, due to a loan default.


2.25 Cubic Feet ( (5 boxes))

Language of Materials



The collection is divided into ten series: Series I: Legal and Administrative Papers, Series II: Statement of Purpose/History, Series III: Annual Reports, Series IV: Financial Records, Series V: Organizational Records, Series VI: Class Schedules and Teachers, Series VII: Exhibition Records, Series VIII: New Location of the People’s Art Center, Series IX: Mabel B. Curtis Personal Papers, and Series X: Miscellany

Physical and Technical Requirements

There are no physical or technical restrictions.

Donor Information

The collection was donated to the Missouri Historical Society in 1992 by Erma Curtis and Thomas A. Curtis, III, the daughter-in-law and grandson of Mabel Curtis.

Related Materials

The following two collections in the Missouri Historical Society Archives also include material relating to the People’s Art Center: Fannie Cook Papers and Dr. John Green Papers. (Dr. John Green was the father of Elizabeth Green.)

Processing Information

Processed by Elizabeth Kellerman, 1993.


Inventory of Mabel B. Curtis Files Regarding the People’s Art Center
EAD by Jaime Bourassa using ArchivesSpace
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center Repository

225 S. Skinker Blvd.
St. Louis MO 63105 United States