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Raj and Karen Aggarwal

A long association with the CMA began in student days
October 7, 2020
Raj and Karen Aggarwal

Dr. Raj and Karen Aggarwal (above, with daughter Sonia) discuss their connection to the museum, starting nearly 60 years ago, and what inspired Raj to make a generous gift to the CMA in honor of his wife.

You have both been visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art since the 1960s. Raj, how has the CMA experience changed for you over time?
We were students then, so what brought us in was that the museum was free. I’m still impressed with that policy today. It makes the museum accessible to a much wider audience. We learned that South Asian art was the focus for then-director Sherman Lee—and the museum has since become nationally and globally known for that collection.

Karen, what was it like to work in the CMA store in the early 1970s?
When I first visited the museum, I was fully enchanted and dreamed of how lovely it would be to go to work there every day. Looking back over a lifetime, I can say working at the CMA was one of my favorite jobs. At lunchtime I would go to the magnificent, darkened Asian galleries. It felt almost like entering a revered temple. Along with splendid Hindu art, it was there that the majority of Buddha statues lived. It felt almost sacred. Being in those galleries was like being embraced by all the wisdom and compassion of the ages. 

How did you begin your philanthropic journey with the CMA? Why did you recently choose to name a gallery, Raj?
We have been members a long time, and we wanted to give our dollars where they can go the farthest. I think the best strategy is to build on your strengths. For the CMA, a renewed focus on its strongest area of reputation, South Asian art, was long overdue. South Asia is an ancient civilization, just like the Egyptians or the Chinese. While Egypt and China might be familiar to us in America, there is not as extensive a knowledge about India as an ancient civilization. The gallery we named has beautiful pieces that reflect a wonderful mix of Indian and Buddhist art, which is satisfying to us because I am from South Asia, and Karen is a Buddhist.

In dedicating the gallery, what made the biggest impression on you, Karen?
My dear husband and dear daughter Sonia remained steadfastly tight-lipped about this surprise birthday present. I was in awe at the unveiling of the gallery plaque, and we enjoyed a private, illuminating talk by curator Sonya Rhie Mace about artworks in the gallery. But I feel that if my name is there, it should be there only among the names of the thousands of visitors over the decades who have also supported our museum and who in particular feel affection for ancient Indian and Asian art. So many generations have added love and presence to this special collection.  

Cleveland Art, Fall 2020