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Sherman Lee, Titan Among Museum Directors, Dies at 90

Sherman Lee, with two objects of his affection

The last time I saw Sherman Lee, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was when he was in New York as curator of a section of the China: 5,000 Years show at the Guggenheim in 1998, some 15 years after he had retired from Cleveland Museum, where he had been director for 25 years.

But when I was a fledgling art journalist, writing long articles for Art in America and ARTnews magazines about ethical issues involving museum collecting, exhibitions and fundraising, I was always on the phone with Lee: He was my go-to person (along with Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim Museum) for brilliantly expressed, cogent and thoughtful quotes defending museum standards and ethics. He was always available, always unafraid to speak forcefully, and always generous with his insights.

So here are a few quotes from this Lee’s Lee files. (Articles are too ancient to be online, to my knowledge.):

From my Jan./Feb. 1977 A.i.A. piece, “The Scramble for Museum Sponsors: Is Curatorial Independence for Sale?”:

—Sherman Lee observed that NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] sometimes squanders money on “exhibitions just short of sensational show business.”

—Sherman Lee feels that in its move “towards making shows more educational and didactic, NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] now and then tends to lose sight of the fundamental purpose of an art exhibition, which is not to illustrate history but to allow an art work to be understood and enjoyed as a work of art.”

—Sherman Lee…, speaking for those who are less enchanted with the show [“The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” which toured internationally to seven major museums, including the Metropolitan], calls it “one of the worst exhibitions ever mounted. It’s Marshall McLuhan run mad.”

From my book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art, discussing his museum’s heralded 1974 purchase of a purported Grünewald that later was found to be a fake:

—Sherman Lee declared that the dealer had “acted in an honorable and courageous way in handling this matter and was as much taken in by the forgery as we were. He is a reputable art dealer with whom the museum has worked in the past and will continue to work in the future.”

And from my November 1978 ARTnews piece, “The Care and Feeding of Donors”:

Lee…said that his museum “gives advice to anybody who asks for it,”
but added that his decision to spend considerable time helping a
collector or to recommend particular acquisitions “depends on how
firmly convinced I am that it will be to the benefit of the museum.” In
some cases, …his museum even gets written statements from collectors
receiving assistance, in which they set down their intention to make
certain donations to the museum. “It’s not legally binding,” he said,
“but it carries a strong moral obligation.”

So did he. Sherman Lee was, in his heyday, this country’s most respected art museum director, known for putting mission and principles first. Everything else was in service of those ideals.

Steven Litt
‘s obit for the Cleveland Plain Dealer is here. The Cleveland Museum’s statement is here.

an ArtsJournal blog