Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, who helped a medium-sized Wisconsin city become known throughout the world for its folk art museum, has died at the age of 79.
Kohler, who died Saturday at her Kohler home, served as director of Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center, named for her grandfather, from 1972 to 2016.
During that time, she guided the center “to an international reputation for expertise in the work of folk, self-taught and vernacular artists,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher wrote in 2016.
Her tenure included the Kohler Arts Center being “in the middle of international art world debates about broadening definitions of art,” Schumacher wrote.
Kohler had a strong focus on artist-built environments.
That included the Fox Point home of the artist Mary L. Nohl, with its outdoor sculptures that the Kohler Arts Center helped preserve after Nohl’s death in 2001.
Under Kohler’s direction, the Arts Center collection grew to include over 25,000 works by more than 30 art-environment builders.
Also, she and her brother, Herbert V. Kohler Jr., Kohler Co. executive chair, worked to create an unusual arts and industry residency program at the company, which includes toilets, showers and other plumbing fixtures among its products.
Since the program was started in 1974, nearly 500 residents have benefited from her vision that artists and industrial craftspeople can benefit by exchanging creative ideas and technical expertise.
“Ruth Kohler was an early visionary and a diligent catalyst in bringing together the arts and industry,” Herb Kohler said.
Kohler also served as Kohler Arts Center assistant director from 1968 to 1972 after starting as a volunteer.
In 2016, Kohler became the Arts Center’s director of special initiatives.
She worked to help develop a new facility for artist-built environments. Known as the Art Preserve, it is scheduled to open in June at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan
Kohler served on the Kohler Foundation Inc. board from 1969 to 2019 and as the foundation’s president from 1999 to 2006. She was also a major shareholder in privately held Kohler Co., which John Michael Kohler founded in 1873.
Her involvement in the arts included serving as chair and member of the Wisconsin Arts Board.
Kohler earned a bachelor’s degree in art and art history at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and did further studies at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Hamburg.
She spent a year teaching art in Beloit public schools. Kohler then joined the faculty at Canada’s University of Alberta-Calgary, where she founded the printmaking program.
That was followed by more than a year in Spain working as an artist.
Kohler is survived by her brother, Herbert V. Jr.; two nieces, Laura Kohler and Rachel Kohler, and one nephew, David Kohler.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Kohler Arts Center and Intuit: The Center of Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago.
The family, in coordination with the Kohler Arts Center, will host a celebration of her life at a later date.