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Was Sherman Lee Ever Wrong?

The museum’s legendary director possessed a keen eye and nearly infallible instincts
July 18, 2017
Appears in July/August 2009

Amy Sparks Assistant Editor, Publications

Imagine a crowded marketplace awash in color and sound, reeking of spices, reeling with people, glinting with new wares. On a small side street on the opposite side of the city is a shop full of antiquities and art considered unpopular at the time. This is where Sherman Lee is. Was. In this scenario he is accompanied by a scholar. He asks the dealer many questions. He asks to see what’s in the back room, knowing that treasures may lurk there. He asks the dealer for more examples, things the dealer may have saved for himself, or for someone else. Or he spies an object high on a shelf that with a little cleaning might be something quite special.

This is how Lee quietly went about building an astounding collection for the Cleveland Museum of Art: by buying against the market, following his instincts, and exercising his voracious appetite for knowledge. 

But Lee was much more than an astute buyer with a good eye. He had firm and surprising views on what art museums should—and should not—be. He equated art museums with wilderness areas. He contradicted himself. He was an elitist with populist ideals. He was obstinate. He eventually became the authority he taught others to question. “Was Sherman Lee ever wrong?” asks Howard Rogers, owner of the Kaikodo Gallery in New York. “Probably, but he would not agree.”

Lee was admittedly conservative in the purest meaning of that word: conserve the past. The way to do this, for him, was through objects. But the objects were empty human gestures without the contexts in which they were made; that is, every object has a narrative. He loved a good story. He is a good story.

Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008) left the building in 1983, and left us mortal beings last year at the age of 90. Building the museum’s Asian collection alone would have cemented his reputation, but he did much more than that: he turned a regional museum into an institution of global importance.

Watanabe Kazan (Japanese, 1793–1841). Portrait of Ozora Buzaemon, 1827. Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1980.177

If he had believed in such things, which he emphatically did not, he might have said the stars aligned for him and the museum in 1958, the year he was made director, the same year that the bequest of Leonard C. Hanna Jr. (1889–1957) gave the museum more than $33 million, half of it to be used solely for acquisitions. Current CMA director Timothy Rub uses a single, somewhat modest word to describe this confluence of events: “serendipitous.”

Although the Hanna bequest enabled Lee to acquire artworks beyond the reach of most museums, he didn’t equate value with price. If it was beautiful (a controversial term these days), if it was singular, if it needed to be preserved, and if it met his standards, it deserved acquisition.

Lee was fond of saying, “News is not history, fashion is not taste, and opinion is not judgment.” Evidence for this is apparent in the exhibition Streams and Mountains Without End: Asian Art and the Legacy of Sherman E. Lee at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a show of 50 Asian masterworks acquired by Lee and co-curated by James T. Ulak, deputy director of the Freer and Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian; Stanislaw Czuma, CMA curator emeritus of Indian and Southeast Asian art; and Anita Chung, CMA curator of Chinese art. It opens concurrently with the new east wing housing the European and American modern and contemporary galleries.

“The exceptional quality of the objects acquired under [Lee’s] tenure reflects his view that art was the focal point of the museum—a view not always upheld by the art museums of today,” says Czuma.

The exhibition’s title comes from one of these exceptional objects: Streams and Mountains Without End, a Chinese handscroll from the 12th century. Of course there is a story. In the early 1950s, a dealer offered Lee a painting attributed to Yan Wengui, a noted 10th-century artist. Lee said no, basing his decision on “stylistic grounds.” Humiliated, the dealer offered Lee Streams and Mountains, now a recognized masterpiece from a period in Chinese art “from which no further works are likely today to emerge from obscurity,” according to Howard Rogers. 

But viewers need not even step inside the museum to understand part of Lee’s legacy. He made the unpopular decision to reinstall Rodin’s Thinker—damaged by a bomb on March 24, 1970—in its unrepaired state, citing “Rodin’s own attitude toward chance and accident when these affected his own clay and wax models—let the event remain as a part of the making of the work.” Also, we might add, the event has passed from news into history, and history calls out to be preserved.

Thangka of Green Tara, c. 1260s. Tibet. Color on cloth. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund by exchange, from the Doris Wiener Gallery 1970.156

The following year Lee laid the cornerstone of CMA’s 1971 wing designed by noted architect Marcel Breuer. He considered this the greatest piece of contemporary art that he acquired. If Lee was beyond reproach in many areas of collecting and connoisseurship, his attitude toward contemporary art was the least understood. For those of us outside the museum who were hungry for it to “catch up” and exhibit cutting-edge contemporary art, Lee was enigmatic, if not downright stubborn. 

His aversion was not as simple as that of a man of an older generation disgusted with the art of young artists. He may not have seen the beauty he sought elsewhere, but beyond that, he did not see contemporary art as endangered. It did not, as yet, need to be saved. “Once we admit the precedence of preservation,” he said, “we are largely committed to the past.”

Like the many objects he acquired, Lee was of a specific time and place that will never be repeated. He was one of the few Americans to tour China before the Cultural Revolution, to view hidden collections of Japanese art before they were seen by the Japanese public, to be an Asian scholar without knowing Mandarin or Japanese, to be director of a museum when museums were not expected to be lightning rods for economic development, to be the director of a museum before the invention of marketing, to be deeply involved with the past while the present was raging right outside the front door.

Beyond Lee’s tangible and quantifiable achievements is something more ephemeral. To paraphrase him: “After seeing a real work of art one cannot look upon the world” the same way again.   


Cleveland Art, July/August 2009