Remembering: Ruth DeYoung Kohler

Remembering: Ruth DeYoung Kohler

Published on Thursday, November 19, 2020.
Remembering Ruth DeYoung Kohler

↑ Ruth DeYoung Kohler | Photo: Courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Ruth Kohler, champion of the under-recognized vernacular artist and longtime director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, died on November 14 at the age of 79. She was a 1992 Honorary Fellow of the American Craft Council.

Ruth was born into the Kohler family, founders of the Kohler plumbing manufacturing company. It was her grandfather for whom the Sheboygan arts center was named. Ruth attended Smith College, earning a BA in art and history, and she went on to further studies at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Hamburg. She began her working career as an art teacher for the Beloit, Wisconsin public schools, then took a position at the University of Alberta-Calgary where she founded the printmaking program. Ruth spent a year in Spain working and studying as an artist before returning to Sheboygan. She began her relationship with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center as a volunteer, moving into the position of assistant director from 1968 to 1972, and assuming the role of director from 1972 until 2016.

Under her tenure as director, the Arts Center grew to become an internationally recognized institution that embraced contemporary art in all forms, especially art of the vernacular. Ruth was also instrumental in the development of the Arts/Industry Residency, a program that brings artists and industrial craftspeople together in collaboration, and which has had nearly 500 participating residents since its inception in 1974. She held a particular fascination with artist-built environments and made the preservation of such sites a focus of the Arts Center. In the early 2000s, she began planning the Art Preserve, a facility dedicated to the preservation, conservation, and study of artist-built environments. Ruth stepped down from the directorship of the Arts Center to devote her energies to the design and completion of the Art Preserve, which is due to open in Sheboygan in June of 2021.

Ruth first became involved with the American Craft Council community in the 1970s. She gave opening remarks at the North Central Region conference “Industry and the Artist-Craftsman” in 1975, and in 1977, she served as a juror for the very first Winter Market in Baltimore. Ruth was the recipient of many awards, including the Governors’ Award for the Arts, Wisconsin; Visionary Award from the American Craft Museum; American Folk Art Museum Visionary Award; and numerous honorary doctorate degrees. In 1992, Ruth was made an Honorary Fellow by the ACC. “I am grateful to the hundreds, even thousands, of artists who have participated in JMKAC programming,” she stated at the time. “They and their art have made life a celebration.”