Ruth Kohler, a tireless champion of under-recognized artists and art forms, died on November 14, 2020 at her home in Kohler, WI. She saw the arts as a driver of positive social change, upholding the pillars of diversity, inclusiveness, and community involvement. She was 79.
Ruth Kohler believed passionately that the arts, in all its iterations, reveal who we are as a people: past, present, and future. She was deeply committed to breaking down hierarchies within the mainstream arts world to engage with overlooked art forms and communities with limited access to arts experiences. 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.
After earning a bachelor of arts in art and art history at Smith College and pursuing further studies at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Hamburg, Kohler spent a year teaching art in Beloit, Wisconsin, 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.
Beginning in 1967, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center served as the main conduit for Kohler’s vision to embrace diversity, preserve culture, change perceptions, and expand knowledge through the arts. She served as the Arts Center’s director 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.
Kohler fully took up the Arts Center’s motto of “All the arts for all the people,” centering programming and exhibitions development around it. “It’s about connections, the connections between past and present, between visiting artists and local artists, between artists and the public. I felt that was a way to make the arts come alive, make them accessible to the public,” she told American Ceramics magazine.
In 1969, an Arts Center board member took Kohler on a fateful outing to Fred Smith’s tavern in Phillips, Wisconsin. The trip shifted Kohler’s ideas about art and sparked her zeal for preserving vernacular art environments. The site featured more than 200 life-size and over-life-size concrete figures embedded with shards of glass. “[It] totally changed the way I think about art,” Ruth recalled. Working with the Wisconsin Arts Board, Kohler Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Ruth spearheaded efforts to restore the site, which is now known as Wisconsin Concrete Park.
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., Kohler 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 25,000-plus works by more than 30 art-environment builders including Emery Blagdon, David Butler, Nek Chand, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, and Stella Waitzkin. The collection also includes two intact environments: the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden and the Mary Nohl Lake Cottage Environment.
Under Ruth Kohler’s leadership, artist-built environments were not the only area for which the John Michael Kohler Arts Center gained worldwide attention; the Arts Industry residency program became renowned as one of the most remarkable alliances of art and industry in the United States. In 1973, spurred on by the enthusiastic response to the Arts Center’s exhibition of contemporary ceramics, The Plastic Earth, Ruth began to negotiate the details of a residency program 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.
More than four decades after the first artists stepped onto the factory floor and with the ongoing support of Kohler Co., 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.
Ruth gave additional form to the Arts Center mission of “All the arts for all the people” in 1997, establishing the Connecting Communities program to harness the power of art in uniting and strengthening the region. More than 20 years later, the residency program continues to bring together superb artists and underserved communities in the creation of significant works of art that exceed the level of traditional “community-based” work.
Over the years, more than 50 artists have collaborated with victims of domestic violence, carpenters, the Hmong and Latinx communities, at-risk youth, senior citizens, school children, the physically disabled, and many others to create performance works, sculpture, murals, and photographic works among others. The M.I.K.E. sculpture on the Sheboygan City Green, the Art in Public Spaces works in downtown Sheboygan, and the Sheboygan Project murals located throughout the city are a few of the works created through Connecting Communities residencies.
From 1995 through 1999, Ruth and the Arts Center’s board of directors raised $20.5 million in order to triple the Arts Center’s size, adding 69,000 square feet of space. Dubbed the “New Arts Center for a New Century,” which opened in May 1999, the expanded building includes over 90,000 square feet of space devoted to eight galleries, two performance spaces, classrooms/studios, a drop-in art studio, café, shop, and more.
Faced with increased interest in the work of art-environment builders and an expanding collection, in the early 2000s, Ruth began planning the Art Preserve—the first facility of its kind, dedicated to the study of the art form and conservation, preservation, and presentation of the works. At the Art Preserve, she envisioned the Arts Center’s collection being safely housed and accessible to the public and researchers year-round. She eschewed traditional understandings of museum storage in favor of an approach that encouraged engaging with the works of art.
In 2016, Ruth stepped away from the directorship to concentrate on making the Art Preserve a reality. In her new role as director of strategic 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. With the acquisition of 38 acres on Sheboygan’s west side, construction began in 2018.  In summer 2021, Ruth’s vision of a center devoted to artist-built environments will hold its grand opening.
At that time she left the directorship of the Arts Center, the board of directors honored Ruth 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.

A Champion of the Arts for the People  

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“Be open to detours and side roads—often they lead to the richest experiences.”

- Ruth DeYoung Kohler II