The American philanthropist and arts administrator Ruth DeYoung Kohler II died at her home in Kohler, Wisconsin, on November 14, 2020, at the age of 79. She was a scion of the family that, in 1873, founded Kohler Co., a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and other products.
Among her many achievements in the field of culture, Ruth was best known for having served, from 1972 to 2016, as the director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, an institution whose programming highlights the creations of self-taught artists, with a focus on site-specific art environments. During her tenure as the JMKAC’s director, the museum’s collection expanded to include some 25,000 works produced by more than 30 creators of art environments.
From 1969 to 2019, Ruth served on the board of the Kohler Foundation, Inc., a philanthropic organisation with close ties to the Kohler family and its privately held company, of which she was a major shareholder. Ruth served as the foundation’s president from 1999 to 2006. A principal benefactor of the JMKAC, the foundation helps fund the conservation and preservation of art environments.
After attending a private girls’ school near Chicago, Kohler earned a bachelor of arts degree from Smith College in Massachusetts. Later, she studied at the University of Wisconsin and also in Germany. After briefly teaching art in Wisconsin public schools, she established a printmaking programme at the University of Alberta-Calgary. Then Ruth spent time in Spain, examining vernacular art forms and visiting Paleolithic-art sites.
After stepping down as the JMKAC’s director and becoming its director emerita, Ruth focused her attention on the design and construction of its new Art Preserve building. Scheduled to open in Sheboygan in June 2021, this new facility will feature visible-storage galleries showcasing the museum’s holdings.
Recalling Ruth DeYoung Kohler II’s long career, Debra Kerr, the president and chief executive officer of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago, told Raw Vision, “Ruth’s vision was bold, prescient and uncompromising. Under her influence, the JMKAC became a prominent force in the study and presentation of the works of often ignored self-taught and outsider artists. She brought much-deserved attention to such important artists as Albert Zahn, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Mary Nohl through world-class exhibitions and scholarship.”
Jo Farb Hernández, the former director of SPACES Archives, a California-based organisation that documented site-specific art environments and whose materials are now held by the Kohler Foundation in Kohler, Wisconsin, said, “Ruth used to recount how her father would bundle the family into a big, old Packard convertible and drive around the Wisconsin countryside. They visited unusual displays of the kind we have come to describe as art environments. She developed an interest in these compelling shrines, private museums, and yard shows as a young girl and maintained this interest as she grew up and became more conversant in the language of art.”
Lisa Stone, the former director of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said, “It’s interesting to contemplate Ruth DeYoung Kohler II alongside Dominique de Menil and her husband John [the founders of the Menil Collection, a modern-art museum in Houston, Texas] in terms of their collecting, [which was] grounded in their deep belief in art and artists.” All of these visionary collectors, Stone noted, created places specifically designed for the art they championed.