Tributes Marking the Retirement of Jennifer Lee, Curator for Performing Arts

photo of woman with white hair black blazer and text reading with gratitude for 22 years of dedication to archiving the performing arts tributes to Jennifer Lee

As this post is being written, the Curator for Performing Arts, Jennifer Lee, is checking up on researchers in the RBML’s reading room using the Serge Prokofiev Archive. She’s encouraging to them in their quest by fielding on-the-spot inquiries with her deep knowledge and curiosity. This care and consideration for the materials and researchers is not unusual. It is, in fact, very much on brand: Jenny was often the first person to send a welcoming email to many new colleagues joining the RBML and Columbia University Libraries.

Upon notifying staff about Jennifer Lee’s pending retirement, RBML’s Director Courtney Chartier noted that Jenny came to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, first as Public Services Librarian, then as the inaugural Curator for the Performing Arts. Her accomplishments are innumerable, but include the acquisition of the papers of such diverse talents as Joseph Urban, Arthur Mitchell, Patti Lupone, and most recently, Pulitzer Prize winning composer Tania León.

Thank you, Jenny, for caring.

For the materials, for donors, for researchers, for our physical plant,* and for the RBML!

A few tribute excerpts from colleagues and donors…


Jenny has been my wonderful, super-dependable office mate for so much of my career at Columbia. It has been so helpful to have another rare-book, printing-history person handy for consultation, or just to admire an interesting book, even though Jenny’s career here has turned more and more to collecting archives…It will take time to realize how much of our center we are losing. — Jane Siegel, Rare Book Librarian

When Tony Kushner came to visit to see his processed archive, I remember watching in awe as he pored intently over some old and seemingly boring New York City Opera (NYCO) scores. He had glanced at the Lincoln letter and some of the other treasured holdings that were out in the donor’s room, but Jenny knew to pull the NYCO scores for him because his parents had played in their orchestra. He was enthralled.

Thanks to Jenny’s curatorship, the RBML’s collections are richer and much more diverse. She brought a remarkable commitment to the legacies of Black artists, from purchasing the Alvin Singleton papers and promoting the use of the H. Lawrence Freeman papers, to championing the Arthur Mitchell papers and of course, bringing us the collection of the inimitable and remarkable Tania León.

Jenny always seemed to know where our collections and our donors and patrons intersected, and we will sorely miss her unerring sense of what would make an impression on a given person. — Kevin Schlottmann, RBML Head Archivist

In her own quiet, calm manner, Jenny has been such a wonderful partner on so many exhibitions (Hamilton pop-up! Columbia LGBT history! Core Curriculum! Wallach Gallery installations!) and loan requests (V&A, Skirball, MCNY) that I’ve worked on at the RBML over the years. Showing me how to strap items to board, the best ways to mount items with pins inside our exhibition cases, and even commiserating with endless frustrations associated with exhibition prep. She has also been such a great supporter of the work I do for the University Archives, including the collection of programs and ephemera from campus events and making sure they get into our collections! — Jocelyn Wilk, Curator for the Columbia University Archives

Curator Jenny Lee and Vice Provost and University Librarian Ann Thornton at Columbia Commencement

Having worked with Jenny on and off for nearly 27 years, I can attest that she is both an outstanding professional and a compassionate person. She’s the best kind of colleague: supportive, smart, curious, and generous. If you’ve ever been treated to an exhibit tour or a show-and-tell by Jenny, then you know that she’s eager to share what she knows and hopes to inspire inquiry in each person with whom she engages, from students to coworkers to donors of collections. I have appreciated her beautiful writing, the way she connects people, and her always kind and caring outlook. Jenny will be deeply missed. — Ann Thornton, Vice Provost and University Librarian

On behalf of the Maurice Peress Family, I am writing to publicly thank Jenny for all she did to collect, create and ensure the protection of our father’s life work. Jenny worked directly with Maestro Peress at his home and at Queens College reviewing and choosing what to include in an eight-decade span of his life and work. Jenny not only reviewed, studied, and heard tales about each entry, but she honored them as if they were from her own family. We felt her care and concern always.

After our father died, I continued the process of working with Jenny to complete the archive. We became close allies on a mission. She became a friend to us all and we asked her to join us at Dad’s memorial as a guest and fellow artist playing the flute in an ensemble. Jenny is a passionate scholar who made us all (Dad included) feel that we are in the best care and that his life’s work was safe.

Special thank you to Elie Hisama for introducing us to Jenny and helping Dad choose the Butler Library. The Maurice Peress Archives are available to all students and scholars of music, old and new, and contain many treasures ranging from Dvorak to Bernstein to Ellington.

With a giant heartfelt thank you to Jenny, we wish you a creative and fulfilling retirement.

— Lorca Peress

Jenny is a remarkable colleague – she always offers you her help…She’s also а wonderful, very compassionate, kind and warm-hearted person. When my father died, Jenny was there for me and my family all the steps on the way. She came to my Brooklyn apartment for a shiva, she found right heartful words for my mom, my daughter and my nephews. Her support and empathy are precious.— Katia Shraga

1930s or '40s set designJenny’s subject knowledge and devotion to her work has been essential…and will be missed. We’ve worked together on many exhibits throughout the years, and I’ve learned so much about the process through Jenny’s expertise and willingness to answer all my questions about it. I’m glad to have worked with you, and wish you nothing but the best for the future. — Vanessa Lee, Public Services Specialist

Jenny has been a welcoming and inspiring colleague since my very first days in the RBML. None of the many wonderful exhibitions in the library could have been created without her guidance and support. She is beloved and respected by researchers and experts across the world of performance – from composers, to dancers, to filmmakers. With expertise ranging from enlightenment scientific instruments, to 19th century Shakespearean drama, to modern ballet, she is the true model of a renaissance curator. Congratulations on all your successes, and here’s to a fabulous next chapter! — Thai Jones, Lehman Curator for American History

It’s really hard to say “goodbye” to Jenny. Of course, as do all of us, I wish her to enjoy a happy and bucolic life in her beautiful new home in sunny Mexico but… Deep in my heart, I know that with Jenny’s departure I will completely lose my sense of security. For more than twenty years, I have been used to relying on Jenny’s wisdom…I will miss Jenny’s delicately worded opinions about some of my more unorthodox ideas: like installing a toilet bowl à la Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” [an] the exhibition…didn’t happen, thanks to Jenny and God…I can go on and on but the moral is: Jenny, you made my life at RBML so much better and I will miss you deeply! — Tanya Chebotarev, Curator for the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture

It has been such a wonderful experience working with you over the years. Your staunch support of the acquisition of Maurice Peress’s archive resulted in the lovely celebration with his family and friends. I will never forget the visit by Maurice and Wilson that rainy day to RBML.

Tania León’s archive being lovingly cared for at Columbia alongside her friend and colleague Arthur Mitchell’s archive is a very special memory. Having our joyous event in Tania’s honor last month at RBML was icing on the cake of her 2023 honorary Doctor of Music, of which you were an essential part.

…I and so many others are grateful for your deep commitment to music and musicians. Your splendid work will live on into the ages. I trust that you’ll enjoy a retirement filled with music and light, and that you’ll have plenty of time for flute and family…

— Ellie M. Hisama, Professor of Music Emerita, Columbia University; Dean, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

We’ve shared so many things in the last several yearslaughs, horror stories, tales to make your eyes roll.  All those hours we spent trying to decipher the Dance Theatre of Harlem puzzle, knowing that even as we peeled back one after another layer of the company’s history, there were still others we had missedwhat an adventure that was. 

And Arthur Mitchell himself, who can forget him?  I thought you were incredibly brave calling him “Arthur.”  Even now, in all the interviews I’ve conducted for the biography of him that I’m writing, I still call him Mr. Mitchell (as do virtually all his former dancers and staff members). 

I admire the patience you bring to you work, the way you have slowly but surely attracted collections that build upon and extend the Arthur Mitchell Collection.  Brava, Jenny!  — Lynn Garafola, Professor Emerita of Dance, Barnard College, Columbia University

Thank you so much, Jenny—for your generosity of time, for your careful and painstaking exhibition work, for what you’ve taught me about the Performing Arts, Mathematics, and Science collections, and for so much more!! Wishing you the absolute best in your next chapter. — Michelle Margolis, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies

When I think of Jenny, the words that come to mind are “kind” and “patient.” And “gracious.” And “knowledgeable.”

How many new curators has she shepherded through the exhibition process? How many performing artists, from the legendary to the lesser-known, has she welcomed to our library? Who else will understand the breadth and depth of her collections, from silk programs to sheet music to maquettes?

I believe that we’ll discover, once her retirement begins, that it will take more than one person to pick up her passed torch.

— Karen Green, Curator for Comics and Cartoons

Jenny is a woman of great grace. She is gracious with her knowledge and her time; she is gracious if her spirit and care. She was the first person to welcome me to RBML, and in just two years of knowing her, I trust her deeply.

Many of these tributes are about your empathy and kindness. All true but I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing the steel in your eyes. You’re a tough cookie, Jenny Lee, and my world is better for having you in it.

— Courtney Chartier, RBML Director (2021 – present)

* Those darned exhibition case windows coming off their rails—no longer your problem! 😉