Ruth DeYoung Kohler II saw the arts as a driver of positive social change, upholding the pillars of diversity, inclusiveness and community involvement. She was a tireless champion of under-recognized artists and art forms, and for most of her career, served as Director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Kohler died November 14, 2020, at home in Kohler, Wisconsin. She was 79.
Born October 24, 1941, to Herbert V. Kohler, Sr. and Ruth DeYoung Kohler, Ruth believed passionately that the arts, in all its iterations, reveal who we are as a people: past, present and future. Through her work at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Kohler Foundation Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, among others, she promoted equitable and inclusive access to the arts in her local community, her home state of Wisconsin, and on national and international levels.
Kohler served as director the John Michael Kohler Arts from 1972–2016, having started as a volunteer and holding the position of Assistant Director from 1968–1972. Through her guidance, the Arts Center grew from a local arts center to an internationally recognized institution presenting contemporary art, the work of vernacular artists, performing arts, and the work of art-environment builders.
In the decades that followed, artist-built environments became a focus of Kohler’s attention. Through landmark exhibitions at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and in partnership with Kohler Foundation Inc., she worked to change how art environments are perceived and valued by the arts world and the public. Under her direction, the Arts Center collection grew to include over 25,000 works by more than 30 art-environment builders.
Artist-built environments were not the only area for which the John Michael Kohler Arts Center gained world-wide attention. Kohler and her brother, Herbert V. Kohler, Jr. (currently Kohler Co. Executive Chairman) collaborated to serve as the driving forces behind the unique intersection of industrial manufacturing and contemporary art through the formation of the Arts/Industry residency program in 1974 with Kohler Co.
This one-of-a-kind collaboration with a manufacturer of plumbing products became world-renowned as one of the most remarkable alliances of art and industry in the United States. More than four decades after the first artists stepped onto the pottery factory floor, nearly 500 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, Kohler stepped away from the directorship to concentrate on making the Art Preserve a reality. In her new role as director of special initiatives, she worked with the board of directors, Arts Center staff, and Tres Birds of Denver, Colorado, in the design and completion of plans for the new facility on Sheboygan’s west side. Construction began in 2018 and in June 2021, Kohler’s vision of a center devoted to artist-built environments will welcome its first visitors.
At the time she left the directorship of the Arts Center, the board of directors honored Kohler by naming her Director Emerita of the Arts Center. 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 the Arts Center to become the renowned institution it is today.
Kohler also served on the Kohler Foundation, Inc., board from 1969-2019 and as the Foundation’s President from 1999-2006. She was also a major shareholder in privately held Kohler Co., headquartered in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Her contributions to arts across Wisconsin and the U.S. are numerous, including serving as Chairman and member of the Wisconsin Arts Board, on the National Endowment for the Arts as a Visual Artists Organization panel member and past site evaluator. Kohler also created the Preservation Committee of Kohler Foundation, Inc. and established the philosophy and protocols for identifying self-taught and environment builders in need of protection and conservation.
Among the many awards and honors Kohler has 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 Outside Art, Illinois; Visionary Lifetime Achievement Award, Museum of Art and Design, New York; Visionary Award, American Folk Art Museum, New York; and honorary doctorates from various institutions of higher learning.
To learn more about Ruth Kohler’s countless contributions to the arts and well-deserved accolades, visit John Michael Kohler Art Center’s tribute at RuthKohlerTribute.com and Kohler Co.’s tribute at CelebrateRuthKohler.com.
Donations in Kohler’s name can be made to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan and Intuit, The Center of Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.