Sage in the Bamboo Grove: The Legacy of Sherman E. Lee

February 28, 2009 - November 29, 2009

In 1998, Curator of Collections Timothy Riggs worked with the eminent Asian art scholar Sherman Emery Lee on plans to reinstall the Asian collection at the Ackland. Though Riggs had known Lee for years — and known of him for even longer — this was the first project on which he worked exclusively with Lee. Riggs was nervous when he first began a series of visits the Lees’ house in Chapel Hill for discussions about the installation. “I was very much intimidated,” Riggs said. “Sherman was a formidable figure.” At the time, the Ackland had recently acquired a pair of screens called The Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove, and after finding the Lees’ house surrounded by a garden filled with rocks and bamboo, Riggs began to think of Lee as his own sage in the bamboo grove. It is an image that has stayed with him since, and was the inspiration for the title of the exhibition Sage in the Bamboo Grove: The Legacy of Sherman E. Lee.

“I learned just about all I know about Asian art from Sherman, beginning with that installation,” said Riggs.

It was one of the Ackland’s great strokes of fortune that Lee chose to live in Chapel Hill after retiring as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1983. Recognized as one of the outstanding scholars of his generation in the field of Asian art, Lee spent the next two and a half decades assisting the Museum in building what is now the most significant collection of Asian art in North Carolina, and one of the premier collections in the south. When Lee passed away on July 9, 2008, the Ackland community was deeply saddened. The Museum celebrates Lee’s life and contributions with Sage in the Bamboo Grove.

Sage in the Bamboo Grove is a multi-gallery exhibition showcasing the ways in which Lee helped to build the Ackland. As a connoisseur and scholar, he advised Ackland directors and curators on Museum purchases in the field of Asian art; he served as advisor to collectors who then donated to the Ackland Collection; and Lee and his wife Ruth gave generously through the years from their own collection. Sage in the Bamboo Grove will feature a selection of works drawn from these three areas, including screens, scrolls, sculpture, and ceramics of major aesthetic quality. All are treasures in the Ackland Collection.

Exhibition Curator Carol Gillham, who knew Lee for more than twenty-five years, said, “The works chosen for this exhibition will, I am sure, give abundant proof of Sherman Lee’s invaluable support of the Ackland in its quest to build a collection of Asian art of great quality and historical value for the University.”

Image: Utagawa Toyohiro, Japanese, 1773-c.1828; Tiger in Bamboo (detail), hanging scroll: color on paper, 80 x 26 1/2 in. (203.2 x 67.31 cm). Gift of Ruth and Sherman Lee, 2003.35.5