With the establishment of the June and Simon K. C. Li Center for Chinese Painting Conservation, the Cleveland Museum of Art becomes a leader among US museums to advance the field. The center is made possible by a transformative $1.5 million gift from June and Simon K. C. Li, a philanthropic California couple with a passion for Chinese history, culture, and art, as well as a deep appreciation for conservation techniques. Their gift, made through a Schwab Charitable donor-advised fund, matches an equally significant $1.5 million endowment-challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The June and Simon K. C. Li Center for Chinese Painting Conservation fills an ever-present void in the United States to care for these centuries-old, fragile masterworks painted on silk or paper. Responding to the urgent shortage of master conservators with the knowledge and skill to preserve these paintings, the Mellon Foundation grant establishes a dedicated endowment fund to support a new generation of conservators.
Serving as a national training ground for conservators, the center ensures the preservation of Chinese painting masterpieces at the CMA, which has one of the most distinguished Chinese art collections in the West, spanning more than 5,000 years and representing the highest level of artistic accomplishment. “We are pleased to join the Mellon Foundation in establishing the Center for Chinese Painting Conservation,” June says. “We choose to support projects that will preserve and promote the knowledge of Chinese culture and art.”
This is not the first time that the CMA has been the beneficiary of June and Simon’s generosity. In 2015 they sponsored both the hefty 500-page collection catalogue Silent Poetry: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the derivative focus exhibition Silent Poetry: Masterworks of Chinese Painting.
Life experiences have helped shape the couple’s philanthropic choices. June is a respected art historian and retired curator who has spent her career researching, acquiring, and presenting China’s artistic traditions. She was born and raised in Hong Kong and studied art history, East Asian studies, and Chinese art history at the University of Toronto and University of Pennsylvania. After a long career in higher education and museums, she retired in 2014 as the founding curator of the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, a position she held for a decade. The Chinese garden is one of the largest outside China.
Simon was born in London but spent a portion of his childhood in Hong Kong. He had a highly distinguished 42-year career in journalism, the last 23 with the Los Angeles Times, where he was an assistant business editor, the foreign editor, and an assistant managing editor. In 2010 Simon, now retired, was honored by his alma mater, Columbia University, with an Alumni Medal for Distinguished Service.
“When I came to the United States to study, I realized that many Americans had limited knowledge about Asia,” Simon remembers. “In fact, there were many misconceptions because of the Vietnamese conflict. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I had my first US job as a journalist, I was committed to helping society understand a larger global perspective on life.” That commitment continued in Los Angeles. “With China’s growth and its importance in the world economy,” he says, “it seems more relevant than ever to promote and understand Chinese culture.”
Simon and June agree that Cleveland’s world-class collection of Chinese art persuaded them to fund the center. “Being a former curator of Chinese art, I understand the importance of the Chinese painting collection in Cleveland,” June says. “The center will have an impact on preserving the collection and will maintain the tradition of Chinese painting conservation, not just in Cleveland but at other institutions.”