An Alliance of Art and Industry
Under Ruth Kohler’s leadership, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s Arts/Industry residency program 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 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 1973, spurred on by the enthusiastic response to the Arts Center’s exhibition of contemporary ceramics, The Plastic Earth, Ruth Kohler began to negotiate the details of an artist’s residency in the Kohler Co. factory with her brother Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., who had recently taken the helm of the plumbingware manufacturer. In August 1974, two ceramists were given a pilot residency in Kohler Co.’s Pottery. For the artists and the factory associates, the collaborative nature of the residency was a revelation.
With the success of that first residency, an ongoing, year-round artist residency program that hosts artists in both the Kohler Co. Pottery and Foundry was developed. Ruth actively participated in the selection of artists, encouraging those working in media other than clay and metal to participate as well. Over the years, she was a frequent visitor to the studios on the factory floor, establishing personal connections with the artists and exploring ways to further nurture their artistic growth.
It was through the auspices of Arts/Industry that the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s much-lauded public washrooms came about. In the late 1990s, the Arts Center commissioned six artists to transform the restrooms into works of art. In keeping with Ruth’s intention to support emerging and mid-career artists, the artists selected for commissions had not yet had the opportunity to create major public works. In 2018, three additional artist-created washrooms were commissioned for installation at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Art Preserve.
Today, with the support of Kohler Co., Ruth’s idea to bring artists and industrial craftspeople together is a vital source of inspiration for the local and global art and design communities. The legacy of Arts/Industry alumni’s creative innovations during their time in residence is visible in the works gifted to the collections of both the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and Kohler Co.