The Sullivans were art collectors and donators, and their collection lives on at Vanderbilt University
After the death of Algernon Sydney Sullivan in 1887, Mary Mildred Sullivan and the couples’ son, George, went through a long period of bereavement—Mary Mildred Sullivan barely made it through the funeral, and went on to wear black for the rest of her life.
As was the family tradition, however, the mother and son team eventually began looking for ways to serve the public. Perhaps, in addition to their natural inclination to serve, pouring themselves into work was a way of coping—doing exactly what Algernon Sydney Sullivan would have done.
Mary Mildred Sullivan was a southerner, and her continued concern for the recovery of her home after the Civil War led her to find ways to contribute to its wellbeing.
Among her many endeavors, she supported and solicited donations for the Southern Industrial Education Association, established to aid so-called industrial schools, which provided basic education in areas in the South where public education still didn’t exist.
At the same time, George Sullivan had been building a vast art collection, visiting galleries in between his periodic illnesses (George, like his father, had poor luck with health). He collected prints, artworks, rare books, and historical documents.
While the Sullivans may have been great lovers of art for themselves, they were more interested in how their collection could be of service to others, and they did not hold it privately for long. They began disbursing their holdings in gifts to colleges and libraries.
The first major donation was to the George Peabody College for Teachers, which still exists today as part of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A friend of Mary Mildred Sullivan’s who was also a graduate of the school told her that art teachers there were in need of a study collection. The Sullivans talked it over and quickly agreed, with George proclaiming, “we have found a splendid outlet for our desire to aid students.”
All told, the Sullivans donated some 10,000 works of art to various institutions.
Peabody College flourished into one of the finest schools of education in the nation in the early part of the 20th century. Its on-site high school, where aspiring teachers did their student teaching, was among the first Southern high schools to be desegregated in the early 1960s.
By the late 1970s, however, Peabody had fallen on hard times, with a financially untenable situation. Fortunately, a solution was found as the school merged with its across-the-street neighbor, Vanderbilt University, where it remains to this day as the Peabody College of Education and Human Development.
It is routinely cited by U.S. News and World Report as the top graduate school of education in America.
The Sullivan Collection lives on at Vanderbilt today as well, with 86 catalogued pieces of art (curators believe there are many more that have yet to be catalogued). George Sullivan even followed up he and his mother’s art donation with another gift in 1937, for the construction of painting storage racks.
The racks are still in use.