Sherman Emery Lee (1918-2008)
Museum curator and art connoisseur, Sherman Emery Lee fostered a lifelong admiration for Asian art. Born in Seattle, Washington in 1918, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After receiving two degrees in fine arts from American University, he completed a Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. During his studies, he gained valuable experience in museum management while working as the assistant to Howard Hollis, curator of Eastern Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1941 Lee became Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
During World War II, Lee served in Pacific as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1946. In late 1945 he was selected by his former boss, Howard Hollis, to return to the Pacific to serve with the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to aide in the protection and preservation of cultural property in Japan. Lee arrived in Tokyo in June 1946 and served as Advisor on Collections. The Division, headquartered in Tokyo, also included Monuments Men Capt. Walter Popham, Lt. Richard S. Davis, and Maj. Laurence Sickman. His duties included inspection tours of Japanese art and cultural sites, including temples, monuments, national parks, and museums. He also attended regular meetings with officials of the Japanese Ministry of Education (Mombusho). The Arts and Monuments Division also facilitated and encouraged the display of Japanese art. Lee and his fellow Monuments Men in the Pacific organized numerous art exhibitions which had an influential role in jumpstarting postwar cultural activities in Japan and other Asian countries.
In recognition of his service, Lee was honored with the Order of the North Star and the Order of the Sacred Treasures by the Japanese Government.
Returning to the United States in 1948, Lee resumed his career as an influential museum curator. In addition to lectures at the University of Washington, he worked as Associate Director at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1952 he began a long and impactful career at the Cleveland Museum of Art. During the next three decades, he rose from Chief Curator of Oriental Art to Assistant Director, Associate Director, and finally Director in 1958. Under his skilled guidance, the museum’s collection of Asian art became one of the best in the country.
Lee’s learned expertise attracted the attention of the country’s most prominent art collectors. He became a trusted art advisor of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, who he unsurprisingly advised to acquire more Asian art. Acting on Lee’s recommendations, the Rockefellers assembled a world-class collection which they later donated to the Asia Society in 1978. Lee also advised Willard Clark, a noted collector of Japanese art. Their partnership inspired the creation of The Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California.
Upon his retirement from the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1983, Sherman moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, he and his wife built a Japanese-style home and garden which was a direct recollection of the country which had played host to much of their collective fascination. Lee gave lectures on Asian art at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and served as a board member of several cultural institutions.
Sherman Lee died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on July 9, 2008.
Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.