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Collectors and Curators

Sherman E. Lee with two works from the Cleveland Museum’s collection. (Robert Falk, The Cleveland Museum of Art. Courtesy of Archives, the Cleveland Museum of Art)

Sherman E. Lee with two works from the Cleveland Museum’s collection. (Robert Falk, The Cleveland Museum of Art. Courtesy of Archives, the Cleveland Museum of Art)

NEW YORK, May 21 2009 – For the third and final talk in Asia Society's lecture series in honor of the late Sherman E. Lee, Asia Society President Vishakha Desai explored the complex relationships between curators and collectors in the 1960s, focusing on the decades of collaboration between Lee and the Rockefeller family.

Held in conjunction with the exhibition Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-war America, Desai's talk encompassed the "partnership of equals" between Sherman E. Lee, art historian and director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and John D. Rockefeller 3rd, who amassed a world-renowned collection that he and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller gifted to the Asia Society.

Desai offered personal anecdotes and lesser-known biographical details, describing a period when questions of provenance were less complicated and grand ideas of dominating the market proliferated. It was a time when masterpieces surfaced from contested sites in war-torn regions of Asia and there were fewer guidelines regarding conflicts of interests over acquisitions.

The Rockefeller Collection reflects John D. Rockefeller 3rd's taste for high-quality works of a technical perfection—that embody a spiritual and sensual component. The strength of the collection lies in its artistic dimension and impact on our understanding of Asian cultures. As Desai stated, John D. Rockefeller 3rd's style was not to haggle over price, and he did not buy in bulk.

Desai pointed out a little-known fact that the Rockefellers' gift of the collection to the Asia Society was not a foregone conclusion. John and Blanchette explored other alternatives with Lee, including the idea of separating the collection into discrete and cogent units for inclusion at various institutions based on need. One possibility, for example, was to gift pieces to the Freer Gallery of Art, which lacked Cambodian sculpture and Indian bronzes. Although Lee favored this option, ultimately John and Blanchette chose to keep the collection together and sought to provide it with a quiet-filled and effective space for contemplation.

Desai concluded the lecture by describing another fruitful relationship—the one between collector Denman W. Ross and curator Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in the first half of the 20th century. Coomaraswamy became the first curator of South Asian art in the United States in 1917. Their collaboration became the basis of the aptly-named Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, a significant array of Mughal and Rajput paintings.

Reported by Jacqueline Ganem