A distinguished museum director, Charles Henry Sawyer was born in Andover, Massachusetts in 1906. He studied the history of government and international relations at Yale University before majoring in law at Harvard University. Yet, fate soon intervened as Sawyer was destined to pursue a career in the arts. His interest in the subject stemmed from travels to Europe during his undergraduate studies. At Harvard, he assimilated himself into the dynamic milieu of the Boston art community centered around Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He soon became acquainted with Paul J. Sachs and enrolled in his legendary Museum Studies course. Before the start of World War II, Sawyer served as the first curator of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy and as Director of the Worcester Art Museum.
Sawyer enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1943 and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). From July to December of 1945, he served as Assistant Secretary-Treasurer of the American Commission for the Roberts Commission alongside his former professor, Paul J. Sachs. Sawyer also served with the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) as the unit’s liaison officer in Washington, D.C. Established in 1944 under the direction of the OSS’s Counterintelligence Branch, the ALIU served as the intelligence component to the MFAA. From 1944 to 1946 the ALIU collected and disseminated information pertaining to Nazi art looting, including the activities of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in France, the collection of Hermann Goering, and the collection of Adolf Hitler intended for his massive Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.
Upon his return home to the United States, Sawyer resumed his successful career as a museum director. He was appointed Director of the Division of Arts and Dean of the School of Architecture and Design at Yale University, where he was granted an honorary Master of Arts in 1947. During the course of his career, he was awarded similar honorary degrees from Amherst College, Clark University, and the University of New Hampshire.
In 1957 he became the Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. He remained at the university as a Professor of Art until his retirement in 1972. One of his lasting contributions to the university was the Museum Practice Program, which remains today as one of the leading training grounds for the next generation of museum administrators. In addition, The Charles Sawyer Center for Museum Studies at the University of Michigan Museum of Art was founded in his honor in 2003.
Sawyer was a member of the Smithsonian Art Commission from 1953 to 1980. He served as the committee’s chair during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dedication of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1968.
Charlie Sawyer died on February 25, 2005 after a brief illness.