Beyond Vassar

AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement

By Amy Boggs ’07

When Katharine Lee Reid ’63, this year’s recipient of the fifth annual AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement, entered Vassar as a freshman, her father Sherman E. Lee had been director of the Cleveland Museum of Art for just over a year. Forty-one years later, Reid became the first woman to hold the same position.

While Reid acknowledged the importance of her father’s 25-year directorship, she was ready to approach the museum with her own thoughts and ideas. Since she first started museum work, Reid has followed a method entirely different from her father’s purely scholastic approach. As Vassar President Frances Fergusson remarked, Reid not only has a keen eye for art but one for the community as well. “Those communities are diverse, representing the people of each city, as well as scholars and art enthusiasts throughout the world. To meet the needs of each constituency is a delicate task.”

Reid has always been up to this task. “It’s not just about a collection, it’s about the relationship between a collection and the community,” she said. “I think that the museum experience is what is going to keep original works of art alive in everyone’s life.” The Cleveland directorship is the last chapter in Reid’s accomplished career: in February she announced her retirement. Reid will not abandon her post early, however, staying on in an advisory capacity until her successor is found and demonstrates the same commitment she has shown throughout her career.

After graduating magna cum laude from Vassar, Reid received a Fulbright Scholarship to study art history at the Sorbonne and Institut d’Art et Archaeologie in Paris. Two years later, she received a master’s degree in art history from Harvard University and became a Ford Foundation curatorial intern at the Toledo Museum of Art. Reid’s career soared from there, leading her from Toledo to North Carolina to Chicago and then to directorship of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I think that at each place I have worked there has been some kind of challenge with a different flavor,” said Reid, but Virginia holds a special place in her heart.

In her nine years there, Reid broadened the museum’s appeal and reached beyond the museum walls with programs like Museums on the Boulevard, coordinating programs among the several large cultural institutions on the boulevard in Richmond’s Fan District. “It was Reid’s innovation and community involvement that impressed the AAVC Awards Committee,” said Committee Chair Meg Veneck Johnson ’84. Before leaving Virginia, Reid initiated a $110-million plan for expansion and renovation at the museum. When she went to Cleveland, a similar renovation plan waited for her there.

Through it all, Vassar has never been far from Reid’s mind. “Vassar was an environment that encouraged you to learn,” she said. “The sky was the limit.” Reid has kept close ties to Vassar, most currently as the chair of the Visiting Committee for the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. “Much of what we have achieved has been the result of her wisdom and prodding,” President Fergusson said. “I consider her a real Vassar jewel.”

Reid considers receiving the Award for Distinguished Achievement as an extraordinary honor, and she looks forward to visiting Vassar on February 9 to give an all-campus talk. “I am just absolutely undone by this honor that Vassar has given me,” she said. “I can honestly say that there is no greater recognition than that bestowed by one’s alma mater.”