A Growing Commitment
In 2000, June Li, who was then an associate curator of Chinese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, attended a press gathering for The Huntington’s announcement of plans to create a Chinese garden. “I was impressed by how organized everything was,” she recalls. “When I came home, I told my husband, Simon: ‘They’re going to build a Chinese garden. This is pretty exciting. We should make a donation.’”
Little did June know how crucial she would be in bringing the garden to life, or how involved she and Simon would become at The Huntington.
Four years later—after 14 years in the Department of Chinese and Korean Art at LACMA—June left her position to enjoy more free time and focus on research. But when The Huntington asked June if she would be interested in helping to create the Chinese Garden, which was still in the early stages of development, she agreed. She was intrigued by the opportunity and decided to take it on.
In 2004, she became the founding curator of the Chinese Garden, a position she held until 2014. She immediately began researching historic practices around the creation of Chinese gardens to ensure meticulous authenticity. The traditions of gardens in China are deeply entwined with art, literature, music, and history.
“What June brought to the table was a major modification of the design and programming to make it a more culturally cohesive creation rather than a pastiche of a Chinese garden,” Simon notes.
“I distinctly remember working on the naming idea,” June says. “In the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, I found a chapter on naming gardens. A new Chinese garden is not complete without a poetic name.” She invited The Huntington’s senior staff to get involved—and deeply invested in the details—by having them read the chapter to absorb the idea.
The first phase of the Chinese Garden—Liu Fang Yuan 流芳園, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance—opened in 2008.
“At The Huntington, June was given an opportunity by an institution that was ready to listen to her and respect what she knew,” says Simon, who playfully calls himself “Mr. June Li.”
A retired newspaperman, Simon worked at the Los Angeles Times for 23 years, including serving as foreign editor and then assistant managing editor. Like June, he found himself increasingly involved at The Huntington. He joined the Board of Governors in 2010 and was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 2019. He is currently on The Huntington’s audit, marketing, research and publications, and buildings and grounds committees.
Like June, Simon appreciates The Huntington’s growing understanding and embrace of Southern California’s Chinese diaspora. “Here’s an institution that had woken up to the demographic changes of the communities around it and said, ‘We can’t afford to focus only on our traditional audience,’” Simon notes. “Then they made the right decision to build a Chinese garden and took the care to get it right.” June adds: “If you have a good idea, people here listen.”
The couple kept enthusiastically promoting the project, which would eventually become the largest Chinese garden outside of China. Still, that was only the beginning.
Under June’s guidance, the Chinese Garden regularly featured lectures, conferences, musical performances, educational classes, school tours, and children’s programs—all of which attracted an increasingly diverse audience to The Huntington. Many of these activities are now organized by the institution’s Center for East Asian Garden Studies, which June and Simon helped create.
The couple has funded many Huntington projects, from the Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts 滌慮亭, which connects the Chinese Garden to the Japanese Garden, to the Stargazing Tower 望星樓. The Lis also endowed the staff position that oversees the Chinese Garden and related programs. The position, aptly named the June and Simon K.C. Li Curator of the Chinese Garden and Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies, is currently held by Phillip E. Bloom. June and Simon’s commitment to an inclusive approach to the Asian gardens at The Huntington is further underscored by their generous gift to the Japanese Heritage Shōya House, another significant project under the auspices of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies.
“The Shōya House, like the Seifu-an teahouse that opened in 2012, furthers the Japanese Garden’s evolution from its origins as a pretty slice of exotica—the Oriental garden—to a serious representation of Japanese culture, just as Liu Fang Yuan has done for the culture of China,” Simon says. “It underscores The Huntington’s commitment to diversifying its collections.”
Some 15 years after the Chinese Garden opened, The Huntington is a changed place with a large Asian constituency and a broader sense of what it means to be part of the Pacific Rim. These are the results of a vision, a community coming together, and importantly, June’s tremendously capacious knowledge of Chinese art and culture, as well as her and Simon’s abiding commitment and generosity.
“June and Simon define what it means to lead by example,” Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence says. “Each of them in their own way has worked deeply to further The Huntington and to support the organization broadly, while also focusing on projects of tremendous passion for them. They are the kind of leaders, supporters, and friends that we cherish. We are very grateful for their involvement in and love for The Huntington.”
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