Sue Schieman Assistant Director of Public Affairs
It seemed fitting that, as museum life trustee Clara Rankin reminisced recently about Sherman Lee, four blooming cherry trees were visible through her living room windows. In Asian cultures cherry blossoms are an omen of good fortune—and in Clara’s opinion, it was the Cleveland Museum of Art’s good fortune to have had Sherman Lee at its helm for nearly 25 years.
Although the museum acquired dozens of old master paintings during Lee’s tenure, he is most notably remembered for assembling a superb Asian collection. Serving in the Navy during World War II and from 1946 to 1948 as a civilian in Tokyo, he cataloged Japanese artwork. This knowledge served him later as he traveled to purchase works for the museum and private collectors. “He had gotten to know what and where the great treasures were, hidden from public view,” she says. “Lee was astute and forward thinking as he advised others, such as Greta Millikin, to pursue specific pieces for their personal collections, knowing that in many cases, the works would later be given to the museum and augment, rather than duplicate, what the museum already owned.”
Clara Rankin has been closely associated with the museum for over 50 years. She grew up in a home where music was a significant part of family life. Her father, Frank E. Taplin Sr., a successful businessman, was an early supporter of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and her brother Frank Jr. an accomplished pianist. Clara took voice lessons at CIM, but as a young child she also enjoyed art classes. After high school, she went on to earn a degree in history at Smith College.
Joining the Womens Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1950 renewed her interest in the visual arts. She and her husband, Alfred M. Rankin, had begun collecting pre-Columbian art, but with the arrival of Lee in 1952, her interest in Asian art grew. In one early encounter with Lee, she surprised him by reciting from memory all the Chinese dynasties. “He presented such an enormous opportunity for me, inspiring me to learn as much as I could. I couldn’t have been exposed to the beauty of Asian art and culture in any better way than through Sherman’s mentorship.”
Her involvement at the museum continued to expand. “For me, it was the epitome when I was asked in 1967 to join the museum’s board of trustees. It was so exciting.” And now it gives her enormous pleasure that her eldest son, Alfred M. Rankin Jr., is the current board president. “How can I be more lucky?”
In recognition of Clara and her family’s long and generous support of the museum and the Campaign for the Cleveland Museum of Art, the galleries of Chinese art in the new west wing will be named in her honor.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2009