In the Galleries with Our Chief Curator

August 1, 2019
Index Magazine

In the Galleries with Our Chief Curator

Lee discussing some of her favorite works in Harvard Art Museums. A sculpture and a painting are on display behind her.
Soyoung Lee, the Landon and Lavinia Clay Chief Curator at the Harvard Art Museums, discusses some of her favorite works of art during a recent interview in the galleries.

Between leading a team of curators, planning large-scale exhibitions, and collaborating with campus partners, chief curator Soyoung Lee rarely has a free moment during the workday. But when she does, you’ll find her in the galleries.

Lee, who specializes in Korean ceramics, became the Landon and Lavinia Clay Chief Curator last fall after 15 years as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Senior writer Katie Aberbach recently accompanied her on a walk through the galleries to hear more about a few objects she’s especially fond of and new initiatives she’s involved with.

Katie Aberbach: Let’s start by looking at an object you knew about even before coming to work at the museums: this large, 18th-century Korean jar with dragons (below), in the East Asian art gallery.

Soyoung Lee: I knew about this jar because the donor, who’s a Harvard (Radcliffe) alumna, was also a supporter of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum. She had decided to give the work to Harvard. I remember asking her, “Why are you giving it to Harvard? You should give it to the Met.” Of course, now I’m very happy it’s here. 

If you look at the dragon, what’s your immediate response?

Aberbach: It’s not a threatening dragon.

Lee: Exactly. In the Western imagination, the dragon is a sort of ferocious, antagonistic beast, whereas in East Asia it’s an auspicious being. Particularly in painted images on Korean ceramics, they tend to be rather friendly—often humorous. For me, it’s the expression of the dragons [on both sides of the vessel] that invites an intimate relationship with the viewer.

Aberbach: Speaking of an intimate relationship with art, one of the projects you’ve been working on is developing an audio guide for visitors. Soon, visitors will have you in their ear as they walk through the galleries.

Lee: We wanted our audio guide to be very personal, as if I’m there talking to you.

Aberbach: How did you decide which objects to include?

Lee: We wanted to represent all three museums and as many different cultures as possible. Some of the objects are on major sight lines and are obvious picks to include; others are maybe not as expected—magnificent works that people don’t necessarily know about or plan to seek out. I want to bring people up to the various floors of the museums, and into the corner galleries that people might miss. And each work selected has some special meaning or resonance for me.

Aberbach: Speaking of sight lines, we’ve just walked into the early Chinese art gallery, which pulls visitors in with this sculpture of a horse. The horse is featured on the audio tour, right?

Lee: Yes, it’s one of the most amazing pieces in our Chinese collection and the collections more broadly. 

It was made during the Han dynasty, at a moment in history when China, having gone through a time of division and warfare, was reunited. Prior to that as well as afterward, the territory we know as China had many different peoples, ethnicities, and kingdoms. This was also a time when there was contact with cultures outside of China, including the Roman Empire. In fact, the bridle and its circular medallions reference Roman styles. The horse is likely a type that was imported from Central Asia or further West.

Another thing I like about this horse is its face. When you look at it from the side, the horse is such a magnificent, almost imperious, figure, but then you look at its face from the front and it’s kind of comical. 

Aberbach: You can’t take it too seriously. 

Lee: Yes! Pointing out these kinds of details in the audio guide will, I hope, help people connect with the piece on a universal, emotional level.

Aberbach: In general, what excites you about a work of art? 

Lee: I’m very much attracted by things that have a sense of abstraction or are in an unfinished state; other times, it’s objects that are whimsical or humorous, as you see in this horse.

Aberbach: Let’s peek next door, at the Buddhist sculpture gallery. You’ve said this is one of your favorite areas of the building. 

Lee: The room creates a sense of serenity, especially with the light coming in through all the windows. 

I did my early work in college with Buddhist art, so it holds a special place in my heart. The sculptures in this room range in type, period, and region of China; some are from other parts of Asia. So this isn’t really how these pieces would have been experienced in their original settings. On the other hand, every museum has to create a construct for display, right? Once you accept that premise, the focus shifts to how effectively we can foster an emotional connection with the works.

“I’m very much attracted by things that have a sense of abstraction or are in an unfinished state.”

Aberbach: Let’s make our way to the final object on our itinerary, across the courtyard in the modern and contemporary art gallery

Lee: I’ve always loved Cézanne, and I really like his Study of Trees, because of its abstract quality. In his time (and I think even now), Cézanne was quite radical in his approach to painting.

At first glance it might seem too random and too unfinished, but he always has a process. I love the palette of colors—I’m a fan of green. 

Aberbach: It’s interesting you chose a study of a painting to highlight, rather than one of Cézanne’s finished works, because I wanted to ask you about our identity as a teaching museum. How does this influence what we display? 

Lee: Most people, when they think of teaching museums, think of collections that are good for teaching but that may not necessarily contain top-quality art. Here's the really fabulous and slightly complex thing about the Harvard Art Museums: this place is so deeply dedicated to study and teaching and connections to the curricula, and the collection is absolutely world class.

After our reopening in 2014, when curators were reinstalling the permanent collections, they asked: what are our highest quality masterpieces and what are the works that are most compelling for teaching? We’re constantly thinking about those questions. Today, the curators and I are considering if there is a different way to hang our permanent galleries, while still ensuring that our major masterpieces are highlighted. Maybe there are stories that haven’t been brought to the surface but really should be.

One small step toward that is the recent installation of Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (2008) next to Nicolas Régnier’s Self-Portrait with an Easel (c. 1620–25). The Marshall painting is a major work, but we hadn’t been able to find the right permanent space. We thought about the objects that are already on display and decided to experiment by placing it next to the Régnier, because they both address some of the same issues. And we hung these two paintings on the Level 2 arcade, a well-traversed, visible space. We’ve gotten a positive response—and it’s only one step in rethinking how we’re presenting our permanent collections.