The Wisconsin Academy community was saddened by the news of Ruth Kohler’s death on November 14, 2020. Ruth was a long-time supporter of the Academy and its arts programming. She was named a Wisconsin Academy Fellow in 1989 for her monumental contributions to Wisconsin art, and she served on the Academy Board (then the Council) from 2001 to 2012 and as the Academy’s Vice President of Arts from 2001 to 2009. This was a transformative period for the Academy’s art program, as it expanded from the curation of a small gallery space in the Steenbock Center lobby to the establishment of the James Watrous Gallery at Overture Center for the Arts.
Ruth saw the arts as a driver of positive social change, upholding the pillars of diversity, inclusiveness, and community involvement, and she was a tireless champion for under-recognized artists and art forms. She believed passionately that the arts—in all its iterations—reveal who we are as a people: past, present, and future. Through her work she promoted equitable and inclusive access to the arts in her local community, her home state of Wisconsin, and on national and international levels.
Ruth DeYoung Kohler II was born on October 24, 1941, to Herbert V. Kohler Sr. and Ruth DeYoung Kohler. She graduated from Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1959. After earning a BA in Art and Art History at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and pursuing further studies at University of Wisconsin and the University of Hamburg, Ruth spent a year in Wisconsin teaching art in Beloit public schools. She then joined the faculty at the University of Alberta–Calgary, Canada, where she founded the printmaking program. That was followed by more than a year in Spain working as an artist and exploring the region’s vernacular and Paleolithic art.
Upon her return to the United States, she took a volunteer position at the newly opened John Michael Kohler Art Center in 1968. She quickly became assistant director, a position she held until 1972, when she became JMKAC’s director. Through her guidance, JMKAC grew from a local arts center to an institution that received international accolades for its skill at presenting contemporary and performing art, the work of vernacular artists, and the work of art-environment builders.
During her tenure as JMKAC’s director, Ruth focused attention on artist-built environments. Through landmark exhibitions held in partnership with the Kohler Foundation Inc., Ruth worked to change the way art environments are perceived and valued by the arts world and the public. Under her direction, the JMKAC collection grew to include over 25,000 works by more than thirty art-environment builders, including such important Wisconsin figures as Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Mary Nohl, and James Tellen.
Under Ruth’s leadership, artist-built environments were not the only area for which the John Michael Kohler Arts Center received world-wide attention. Ruth collaborated with Herbert V. Kohler Jr., her brother and current Kohler Company executive chairman, to develop one of the most remarkable alliances of art and industry in the United States. Established in 1974, the Arts/Industry residency program has brought hundreds of artists together with the skilled laborers of the Kohler Company pottery and foundry to develop their interest in materials and understanding of industrial processes. Participating artists are exposed to a wide body of technical knowledge that enables and encourages them to explore new ways of thinking and working. More than four decades after the first artists stepped onto the pottery factory floor, nearly five hundred Arts/Industry residents have benefited from her visionary idea that artists and industrial craftspeople can find commonality in the exchange of creative ideas and technical expertise.
In 2016, Ruth stepped away from the directorship of JMKAC to concentrate on making the Art Preserve a reality. Situated on 38 acres just west of downtown Sheboygan, the Art Preserve is to be the world’s first museum devoted to artist-built environments. The 56,000-square-foot building incorporates materials—such as wood, concrete, and glass—favored by many creators of art environments, and provides exhibition space and visible storage for the more than 25,000 works in JMKAC’s world-renowned collection. In her new role as director of special initiatives, she worked with JMKAC’s board of directors, staff, and a design firm from Denver, Colorado, called Trés Birds to develop plans for the new facility. Construction began in 2018, and in June 2021 the Art Preserve—Ruth’s vision of a center devoted entirely to artist-built environments—will welcome its first visitors.
At the time she left the directorship of JMKAC, Ruth was honored by the board of directors, who named her Director Emerita. This lifelong title is a testament to her tremendous contribution to the fields of art environments and self-taught and folk art as well as contemporary art—and to her great success in guiding JMKAC to become the renowned institution it is today.
Her contributions to arts across Wisconsin and the U.S. are numerous and include serving as member and chair of the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as serving on the National Endowment for the Arts as a Visual Artists Organization panel member and site evaluator. Ruth created the Preservation Committee of the Kohler Foundation Inc. and established the philosophy and protocols for identifying self-taught and environment builders in need of protection and conservation. Ruth also served on the Kohler Foundation Inc. board from 1969 to 2019 and as the Foundation’s President from 1999 to 2006. She was also a major shareholder in the privately held Kohler Company, headquartered in Kohler.
Among the many awards and honors Ruth received are: Honorary Fellow, American Craft Council, New York; Governor’s Award for the Arts, Wisconsin; Visionary Award, American Craft Museum, New York; Visionary Leadership Award, Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Illinois; Visionary Lifetime Achievement Award, Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Visionary Award, American Folk Art Museum, New York; and honorary doctorates from various institutions of higher learning.
Ruth will be remembered by her family and friends not only for her many contributions to the arts and the community but also for her engaging 1000-watt smile, her keen sense of humor, and her love of a well-crafted sentence. Ruth had a gift for connecting with young and old—not just through appreciating art, but through creating art as well, whether it was plastering a piñata for a birthday, decorating an Easter egg, or crafting the perfect Christmas card. Ruth was an illustrator in every sense of the word, imbuing the lives of those close to her with indescribable color and detail. She will be missed.
Thanks to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Kohler Trust for Preservation, and the Kohler Foundation Inc. for their generous contributions to this memorial tribute.