Ruth DeYoung Kohler II was a tireless champion of under-recognized artists and art forms. She saw the arts as a driver of positive social change, upholding the pillars of diversity, inclusiveness, and community involvement. She believed passionately that the arts, in all its iterations, reveal who we are as a people: past, present, and future.
Ruth’s passing is tremendous loss to the international arts community and to everyone who knew and loved her. She died Saturday, November 14, at her home in Kohler, Wisconsin, at the age of 79. Daughter of Herbert V. Kohler, Sr. and Ruth DeYoung Kohler, Ruth was the younger sister of current Kohler Co. Executive Chairman Herbert V. Kohler, Jr.
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.
As the long-tenured Director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (1972-2016), Ruth grew the Sheboygan, Wisconsin Arts Center to an internationally recognized institution presenting contemporary art, the work of vernacular artists, performing arts, and the work of art-environment builders.
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, preserved 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.
Her final endeavor was serving as Director of Strategic Projects focused on the design and building of the Arts Preserve, west of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which will open to the public in June 2021. This institution will celebrate art-environment builders and house an expanding collection of works dedicated to the study of the art form and the conservation, preservation, and presentation of the works.
“Art energizes public spaces, emboldens thinking and enriches communities. Art is indispensable to who we are as people, our quality of life, and our success in business, and has guided our company for generations. Ruth Kohler was an early visionary and a diligent catalyst in bringing together the arts and industry. She advocated strongly for this unique exchange of ideas between artists and production associates, which often drove innovation and created an open dialogue that encourages mutual inspiration,” said Ruth’s brother, Herb Kohler, Kohler Co. Executive Chairman.
The Arts/Industry collaboration between Ruth and her brother, Herbert, is a one-of-a-kind alliance. This unique intersection of industrialsm and the arts was forged in 1974. More than four decades since the first artists created their works on the Kohler Co. pottery factory floor, nearly 500 residents have benefitted from Ruth and Herbert’s vision that artists and industrial craftspeople can make stunning art pieces when blending creativity with craftmanship and technical expertise.
Ruth also served on the Kohler Foundation board from 1969-2019 and as the Foundation’s President from 1999-2006. She made it her mission that the preservation of art environments, folk architecture, and collections by self-taught artists was always a major focus of the Kohler Foundation.
“Through her work at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and Kohler Foundation, Ruth has promoted equitable and inclusive access to the arts in her local community, her home state of Wisconsin, and on national and international levels,” remarked Ruth’s niece, Laura Kohler, Senior Vice President — HR, Stewardship and Sustainability. “She has been a guiding force behind the selection and conservation of many outsider arts sites and collections. Without Ruth’s vision and curatorial guidance, the Kohler Foundation would not be in a position to save these significant works of art for the public to appreciate and experience.”
Her contributions to arts across Wisconsin and the U.S. are numerous, including serving as chairperson 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. Ruth 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 Ruth 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.