A New Head Curator for the Harvard Art Museums
The Harvard Art Museums has named Soyoung Lee, an expert in Korean art and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its new chief curator, effective September 24. Lee’s appointment concludes a lengthy search process—she succeeds Deborah Kao, who retired from the position in January 2017.
“When I tell people who are not in the arts that I work at the Met, it sounds so glamorous,” Lee said in an interview. “But when you come to a museum and look at a beautiful object, there are so many different hands and minds that go into it.” An exhibition can take five years to plan, particularly for complex shows that involve loans from international institutions. For some of her Korean art exhibitions, she explained, government officials had to decide whether certain important cultural treasures could be loaned internationally. “Sometimes you do your best to conceptualize and organize a show, and at the last minute some political workings will prevent a major piece from coming.”
Lee has spent her 15-year curatorial career at the Met, where she was the first curator for Korean art and organized critically acclaimed exhibitions of Korean ceramics, paintings, screens, and other works, from the fifth century through the modern period. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia, where she wrote her dissertation on the influence of Korean ceramic styles on the ceramic industries of Japan. In 2016, as a visiting professor at Columbia, she taught a graduate seminar on Korean and Japanese ceramics. She’s aimed to “help people conceptualize where Korean art fits in the context of East Asia and within the global context,” she said. Her most recent exhibition, “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” featured evocative depictions of the Kumgang Mountains in present-day North Korea.
“The Harvard Art Museums opportunity is something that one can’t pass up,” Lee said. “In my new role, I won’t be dealing solely with Korean art, and I’m happy to be thinking more broadly about different cultures and how they connect, and how world-class museums like the Harvard Art Museums can shape the next generation’s thinking about art and culture.”
She will oversee the Harvard Art Museums’ three curatorial divisions (Asian and Mediterranean, European and American, and Modern and Contemporary), its exhibition program, and the stewardship and development of the collections. She will work closely with Martha Tedeschi, director of the museums, who was appointed in 2016.
Her appointment is the most recent in a series of changes in the museums’ senior staff. “We are welcoming Soyoung to our staff at an exciting time, as we further establish our dual role as a premier teaching institution and one of the major public art museums in the dynamic Boston cultural landscape,” Tedeschi said in a press release announcing Lee’s appointment. “We are thrilled to have such a well-respected and gifted art historian join our curatorial team.”
Lee also looks forward to collaborations with Harvard’s many cultural institutions and resources, like the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the Peabody Museum. “This is a very transitional moment for museums in general within the cultural world,” she said. “Traditionally, museums have been thought to be places where people come to see art presented in ways where the museum curators are the experts. That remains true and is a fundamental role of the museum...but people are rethinking what culture means, and looking to museums as part of that experience.” Many museums, she said, are now are going beyond being places where art exists to ask, “How do we incorporate a broader cultural experience into the museum?”