With his beloved wife Ruth by his side, Sherman Emery Lee led the Cleveland Museum of Art for twenty-five years. The couple met as students at American University in Washington, D.C. where Lee was studying history and where he first studied art history. Fellow classmate Ruth Ward appeared as one of America’s “beauties of the eastern seaboard” in the April 12, 1938 issue of Life Magazine, and Lee wasted no time marrying her in September of that year. He claimed that she ‘civilized’ him and throughout their seventy-year marriage, she was his partner and collaborator. In personal letters, photographs, family records, and memorabilia, the family papers of this dynamic couple tell the story of the love, perseverance, and success of one of the 20th century’s most esteemed art museum directors and art historians.
Table of Contents
Preferred Citation note
The Cleveland Museum of Art Archives, Sherman Emery and Ruth Ward Lee Family Papers, date and short description of document [e.g., letter from Sherman Lee to Ruth Ward Lee, 6 July 1946].
Sherman Emery Lee (1918-2008) served as the third director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from April 1, 1958 to June 30, 1983, guiding the development of a collection of considerable renown. In total, he worked for the museum for thirty-two years, two as a student volunteer while receiving his doctorate, five as curator of Oriental art, and twenty-five as director and chief curator of Oriental art. Although born in Seattle in 1918, Lee grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He did not develop an interest in art until he enrolled in an art history course at American University in Washington, D.C., during his junior year of college. He received both a bachelor's and master's degree from American University, majoring in history, in 1938 and 1939, respectively. He discovered his true interest in Asian art while enrolled in summer courses at the University of Michigan in 1939. Lee met his wife, Ruth Ward (1917-2011), while at American University. They married in 1938.
After graduating from American University Lee continued his education at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. His first association with the Cleveland Museum of Art was serving as a student volunteer for Howard Hollis, curator of Oriental art. He received his Ph.D. in art history in 1941, with his dissertation A Critical Survey of American Watercolor Painting. His first professional position was at the Detroit Institute of Arts as curator of Far Eastern art and curator of decorative arts, which he held from 1941-1946, serving the last two years while in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater. In 1946, Howard Hollis asked Lee to join him as an advisor on collections in the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section, General Headquarters, Supreme Allied Command in Tokyo. The mandate of the Arts and Monuments Division was to inspect and inventory all works of art as a way to protect and promote the arts in Japan. In this position, Lee was exposed to works of art that he otherwise would never have been able to see, cementing his interest in the art of the Far East. When Hollis left Tokyo in 1947 to become an art dealer in the United States, Lee stayed on and headed the operation. Lee left the Far East in 1948 to work for the Seattle Art Museum, which had a substantial Asian art collection. He returned to Cleveland in 1952 to become curator of Oriental art.
The trustees of the Cleveland Museum of Art appointed Sherman Lee to be the successor to the dynamic William Milliken (director from 1930-1958). Lee had become involved in the administrative duties of the art museum by serving as the museum's liaison to the architects designing an addition to the building, which opened to the public less than a month before Lee officially became director. In late 1957, Leonard Hanna, Jr., already an important museum benefactor, died and left to CMA a bequest valued at twenty-five million dollars. His bequest, mostly in equity, rapidly increased in value to be worth over thirty-six million in 1960, making the Cleveland Museum of Art endowment second in size only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
With a wealth of funds at his disposal, Lee began the task of expanding the museum's already respected collection. As chief curator of Oriental art, Lee assembled an Asian art collection of significant repute. The collection was small prior to his arrival, but through his connections in Japan and other Asian countries, as well as his knowledge and connoisseurship, the collection grew exponentially. During the 1950s and 1960s, Asian art was in low demand in America. Lee purchased masterpieces at very reasonable prices. Lee worked personally with a number of dealers in Japan, including Mayuyama & Co., Setsu Gatodo Co., and Yamanaka & Co. Lee focused on all Far Eastern cultures and styles of art, also building up the museum's Indian and Southeast Asian collections. Because of the Trading with the Enemy Act (amended in 1950, Public Law 857, 81st Congress), however, importing artwork from China was forbidden from 1950-1972. When relations with China reopened, Lee visited Beijing as part of an American art delegation organized by the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China, the first such delegation since 1949.
Lee felt it was important to build the museum's collections of European and American paintings, as William Milliken had focused more on decorative arts and sculpture. The museum's contemporary art collection also grew from nearly non-existent to a respectable, if still small and somewhat conservative, collection. Lee believed it was not the museum's place to gamble on new works of art, and wanted to wait and see which artists would have enduring value. He also felt that specialized museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, were appropriate venues for extensive modern and experimental art collections. Nevertheless, he devoted resources toward its development at CMA, creating the position of curator of contemporary art, first held by Edward Henning, in 1962. To aid in the care of artwork, Lee established the conservation department (originally called restoration) in his first year as director, appointing Joseph Alvaraz and Frederick Hollendonner as the museum's first conservators. Lee's collecting philosophy stressed quality above quantity, so while the museum's collection did not rival the size of some of the great eastern art museums, by the time of his retirement in 1983 it was considered one of the best comprehensive collections in the country.
Lee continued CMA's role as an educational institution by expanding the museum's education department. He wanted to cement the relationship between the museum and Western Reserve University where he began serving as an adjunct professor in 1962. Lee first taught at the University of Washington while at the Seattle Art Museum and felt that art museums and universities had much to offer each other. In 1967, Sherman Lee, with Professor Harvey Buchanan of Case Western Reserve University, formalized the museum-university relationship with the creation of a joint graduate program in art history. The program allowed students to use museum resources while obtaining their master's or doctorate in art history, and take classes taught by a combination of museum curators and Case Western faculty. Lee taught and advised many students focusing on Asian art.
Under Lee, the museum continued its tradition of gallery lectures, tours, extension exhibitions, and low-cost art classes for children and adults. The museum reached out to school districts, most notably through the East Cleveland Project, which provided children in depressed neighborhoods the opportunity to work intensively in the museum's studios and galleries. From 1972 to1974, Sherman Lee chaired the Council on Museum Education in the Visual Arts, whose mission was to aid future museum educators through a study of current museum educational. The results of the council's study were published in 1978 as The Art Museum as Educator, with Adele Silver, manager of public information at CMA, serving as one of the editors.
Although Lee had the reputation of being reserved and detached from the surrounding community his support of the educational mission of the museum and his dedication to keeping the permanent collections free and open to the public attest to his commitment to enriching Cleveland's cultural opportunities. He did feel, however, that it was not the museum's place to become a social advocate or to use gimmicks to lure visitors through the museum's doors. He felt that the art museum was a place for looking at and contemplating art, something that required thought and effort on the part of the individual. He did not support "blockbuster" exhibitions chosen simply for their crowd-drawing ability, nor did he believe art museums should be a forum for political or social issues. His views stood in direct contrast to Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977, who encouraged the expansion of the museum's role and held controversial but "socially conscious" exhibitions. CMA could not remain immune to the social unrest and tensions building in Cleveland, however. The Rodin sculpture The Thinker, which graced the steps of the building's original 1916 entrance, was bombed on March 24, 1970. The statue fell victim to a general act of violence against the “establishment”. The perpetrators were never identified. The statue was damaged badly enough that restoration work was impossible without compromising its integrity. Lee returned The Thinker to its location on the steps without restoration work as enduring evidence of the bombing and respecting Rodin's fascination with accidental effects and damage to his work.
While Lee did not support exhibitions solely for drawing crowds, he did encourage exhibitions that furthered scholarship and demonstrated themes or styles of art. The museum held several important exhibitions each year and was able to devote considerable space to them in a new addition that opened in 1971. In his own field of Asian art, Lee mounted numerous important exhibitions, each with a meticulously written catalog, beginning with Chinese Landscape Painting in 1954 and ending with Reflections of Reality in Japanese Art in 1983. He also furthered scholarship in the field of Asian art through numerous books and articles, the most important perhaps being A History of Far Eastern Art, first published in 1964. The book served as a textbook for courses in Asian art history, one of the first of its kind. In the field of Indian art Lee acquired for the museum a nearly complete manuscript copy of the Tuti-nama (Tales of a Parrot), tracking down missing pages that had been cut out of the book. He hired scholars Pramod Chandra and Mehmed (Muhammed) Simsar first to publish a complete color facsimile of the manuscript in 1976 and later to provide a complete English translation of the stories.
During Lee's directorship, the museum building expanded twice. Marcel Breuer and Associates designed the first expansion, which opened in 1971. It provided new special exhibition space; educational offices, workspace, and classrooms; and a new auditorium. The Breuer addition was so much associated with its educational function that Lee referred to it as the "education wing" as frequently as the "Breuer wing." The addition, with its stark black and white striped exterior, completely changed the north façade of the museum. Lee renovated the former auditorium to become gallery space for the Asian collection and guided the museum through a series of gallery renovations that combined paintings and decorative arts and provided a chronological sequence of the development of Western Art. Peter van Dijk designed the second building project, completed in January 1984 after Lee's retirement. It provided needed book stack and work spaces for the library as well as additional gallery space for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American art. In contrast to the Breuer addition, the new library addition was nestled unobtrusively along the museum's west side between the 1916 building and the Breuer addition. This addition was torn down during the museum’s renovation project in the early twenty-first century.
Lee was active in numerous professional groups. He served on governing bodies for many national arts organizations, including the American Arts Alliance, the American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors (where he served as president from 1968-1969), the College Art Association, and the JDR 3rd Fund. Additionally, he served on the National Humanities Council, the advisory body for the National Endowment of the Humanities, from 1969-1975. Lee took an interest in politics and periodically testified before congressional committees. In 1977, he testified on behalf of the Association of Art Museum Directors in support of a bill that would curb traffic in stolen cultural property. He was also a proponent of tax incentives for art donations and government indemnity for artwork in traveling exhibitions. Locally, Lee was involved in the arts scene by supporting local artists through the May Show (the museum's juried art show for local artists), by advising local arts organizations, and by serving as a juror for local art competitions. He supported public arts programs by serving as an advisor for projects such as The City Project - Outdoor Environmental Art, organized by Cleveland State University in 1977, and as a member of the Fine Arts Advisory Council to the Cleveland City Planning Commission.
In addition to general arts organizations, Lee served on the governing bodies for organizations specifically devoted to Asian art. On behalf of the Asia Society, founded by John D. Rockefeller III, Lee organized exhibitions of Asian art at its gallery in New York and lobbied for safeguards against stolen Asian artwork. Internationally, Lee participated in the United States - Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), founded to foster the growth and exchange of cultural resources between the two countries. Lee organized the exhibition, Masterpieces of World Art from American Collections: From Ancient Egyptian to Contemporary Art, shown in Japan in 1976 to commemorate the United States bicentennial. The Emperor of Japan named Lee a member of the Order of Sacred Treasure for his work on the exhibition. It was one of many honors bestowed upon Lee for his work and scholarship.
Upon his retirement from the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1983, Sherman and Ruth Lee moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where they continued to be active in the art world. Sherman served as an adjunct professor both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, teaching classes in Asian art. He advised the Ackland Art Museum on Asian art acquisitions, and organized exhibitions at various museums, including the National Gallery of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Sherman and Ruth Ward Lee met as students at American University in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Lee was the daughter of Inez Weaver Ward and George B. Ward of North Carolina. She attained some notoriety in 1938 when her portrait by Louis Fabian Bachrach was featured in the April 12th issue of Life Magazine as one of America’s beauties of the eastern seaboard. Sherman Lee asserted that she “civilized” him and during their seventy-year marriage she was his partner and collaborator, supporting his career and raising their four children, Katharine, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Thomas. Following in her father’s footsteps, Katharine Lee Reid served as the sixth director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 2000-2005. Dr. Lee passed away in 2007. Ruth Ward Lee died in 2011.
Scope and Contents note
The personal papers of Ruth and Sherman Lee are a donation from the Lee family. They document the history of both the Lee and Ward families in addition to the relationship between Ruth Ward and Sherman Lee.The collection is organized into six series.
Series One, correspondence, is arranged by general and family correspondence. General correspondence is organized alphabetically by correspondent and chronologically thereunder.This small subseries includes letters that document the Lee’s relationship with friends, colleagues, and business associates. Family correspondence consists primarily of letters between Sherman and Ruth Lee and document their relationship before and during their marriage. Of particular interest are letters documenting Sherman Lee’s naval career and his tenure as advisor on collections in the Arts and Monuments Division of the Supreme Allied Command in Tokyo following World War II.
Series two, subject files, is organized into several subseries and includes records related to Sherman Lee’s professional associations, his research and writings, and travel. It also includes official records related to his military service and work in the Arts and Monuments Division.The family papers included in series three relate to family and personal history including yearbooks, awards, degrees, and memorials. Ephemeral items in series four include clippings, scrapbooks, directories, and Sherman Lee’s dog tags.
Series five is the largest and consists of audio and visual material. A small number of audio tapes, the condition of which is poor, document Lee’s lectures as a professor in the Cleveland Museum of Art-Case Western Reserve University joint program in art history. The remaining material in the series consists of photo albums and loose photos of family, friends, and travel. These are arranged chronologically and thereunder by subject or location. The final series includes oversized items and scrapbooks.
Arranged by series and thereunder by subseries. Generally chronological or by subject. Oversized items are listed individually.
Ingalls Library and Museum Archives11150 East Blvd.
Cleveland, OH, 44106
Conditions Governing Access note
Subject to review by archives staff. For more information or to access this collection contact archives staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Immediate Source of Acquisition note
Donated by the family of Ruth and Sherman Lee through Katharine Lee Reid.
Controlled Access Headings