Ruth DeYoung Kohler
Early life and Education
Ruth DeYoung Kohler was born in Chicago on October 24, 1941. Her father was Executive Chairman of Kohler Co., and her mother was a journalist and women’s rights advocate. Kohler graduated from Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois in 1959. She earned a BA in art and art history from Smith College, Massachusetts then undertook further graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin.
After a year teaching art in Wisconsin public schools, Kohler joined the faculty of the University of Alberta-Calgary in Canada where she founded the printmaking program. In 1963, she moved to Spain to work as an artist and study Paleolithic art.
Road to success
When the John Michael Kohler Arts Center was opened in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1967, Kohler returned home and began volunteer work at the center. She became Assistant Director in 1968 and took the role of Director in 1972. Kohler viewed the arts as a driver for positive social change and community involvement, through which to embrace diversity, preserve culture, change perceptions and expand knowledge. Under her guidance, the Arts Center grew from a local project to an internationally recognized institution, presenting contemporary art, the work of vernacular artists, performing arts, and the work of art-environment builders.
Kohler was a driving force behind the 1974 creation of the Arts/Industry residency program, a unique intersection of industrial manufacturing and contemporary art. In 1997 she established the Connecting Communities residency program to unite artists and underserved communities in the creation of important works of art. Kohler and the Arts Center’s board of directors raised $20.5 million in funding to triple the Arts Center’s size in 1999.
She left the position of Arts Center Director in 2016 to concentrate on the Art Preserve, a 38-acre site on Sheboygan’s west side housing over 25,000 objects. The project is the largest collection of artist-built environments in the world, safely housed and accessible to the public year-round. The facility was completed and opened in June 2021.
Kohler passed away on November 14, 2020. Through her lifelong commitment to the arts, she tirelessly championed under-recognized artists and overlooked art forms, fully embracing the Arts Center’s mission of “All the arts for all the people”. Supported by a bequest from Kohler, the Milwaukee-based Ruth Foundation for the Arts began providing its first grants in 2022.
Projects and organizations Ruth supported
The organization explores new possibilities in arts philanthropy. With an aim to safeguard unconventional creativity and its people-centric approach, the foundation awards a number of grants annually, totaling approximately $20 million every year. The first round of funding went to 78 nonprofit arts organizations from 29 states across a broad spectrum of fields and genres, including the Milwaukee Film Festival and Arts @ Large.
In addition to its grantmaking, Ruth Arts also plans to establish an artist advisory committee, a visiting artists program for art schools, a fellowship program for artists and research grants for cultural workers.