CMA shines a narrow spotlight on Sherman Lee

Sherman Lee (1918-2008) was a commanding figure in the world of American art museums, known for transforming the Cleveland Museum of Art from a small regional museum to major institution of international importance during his 1958-1983 tenure as its director. The exhibition Streams and Mountains Without End: Asian Art and the Legacy of Sherman E. Lee at the Cleveland Museum of Art, celebrates Lee's quarter-century tenure as CMA's director by spotlighting 50 key Asian art acquisitions made under his leadership.

The show's title is taken from a Chinese scroll, dating from 1100-1150, which the museum acquired in 1953, when Lee was in his first year as its curator of Asian art, then called "Oriental art." As with every object in the four-room exhibition, it is positively exquisite and serves as an affirmation of Lee's exacting eye. Filled as it is with magnificent works, the exhibition provides a rosy view of Lee as an exceptionally discerning museum director whose particular field of expertise and passionate practice as a curator of Asian art helped to put the Cleveland Museum of Art on the map.

But now that the museum is about to embark on a search for a new director (following the recent announcement that current director Timothy Rub is leaving in September to become director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), it's worth considering the lasting impact that Lee had on the museum for better and for worse.

While it could be rightly argued that Lee's undisputed brilliance as a collector and a Asian-art scholar turned CMA into international player in the art-museum world, a case could also be made that the narrow concentration of his passion came at a cost, one that may forever leave conspicuous gaps in the museum's permanent holdings. Most notably, with a few exceptions, the museum did not acquire major works of current art that were readily available during Lee's directorship. So, for example, unlike many other art museums in the U.S., CMA did not buy large-scale seminal canvases by abstract expressionists or pop artists while Lee was at the helm.

According to colleagues, Lee believed in waiting 20 years before acquiring contemporary works. His successor, Evan H. Turner, said in a 1984 New York Times article that Lee's policy was, "you wait until the first flush of enthusiasm is over." The problem is, unlike the market for Asian art, 20 years is an eternity in the contemporary-art market. By the time CMA was officially in the market for major works from the 1950s, '60s and '70s, many of the most important pieces were firmly placed in other museum collections. And those few works that did come up for sale carried astronomical price tags.

Depending largely on the will and policies of its future directors, the Cleveland Museum of Art may or may not develop a strong collection of contemporary works produced during the time Lee was its director. Either way, in more ways than one, his legacy as incomparable collector of Asian art raises the stakes.

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