Michael Horne

New Ruth Foundation a National Player

Late Ruth Kohler's newly born, Milwaukee-based, $440 million Ruth Foundation for Arts the biggest of its kind in U.S.

By - Jul 2nd, 2022 03:16 pm
US Bank Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

US Bank Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The nation’s arts community was jolted Thursday with the announcement of the new $440 million, Milwaukee-based Ruth Foundation for the Arts and its initial gifts totaling $1.25 million to 78 organizations from 29 states, including, locally, Arts@Large and Milwaukee Film. The unrestricted grants were $10,000; $20,000 and $50,000 depending on the organization’s budget.

The cultural largesse was just a taste of things to come. According to the press release:

The new foundation is supported by a bequest from the late Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, (1941-2020) and expects to award grants totaling more than $17 million annually.

That sum would rank the Ruth Foundation, based in the US Bank Center at 777 E. Wisconsin Ave., at the very pinnacle of U.S. arts financing. With its immense capital, the new foundation “Aims to Shake Up Arts Philanthropy,” according to a headline in Art News.

How so? According to the article:

The foundation’s grants are unusual in that they are unrestricted, meaning that they can go toward anything required to keep an arts organization afloat, including operational expenses. Traditionally, most art-world philanthropy is given for specific programmatic endeavors, primarily to mount exhibitions or produce catalogues.

Executive Director Karen Patterson, a former senior curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan (JMKAC), which Ruth Kohler ran for over four decades, said, “I know what an unrestricted grant feels like, and I wanted to start there. … We tried to look for organizations that are clear in their missions and that have figured out the balance between community making and creative process. … We’re looking to fund arts organizations that are unique in their missions. That’s what Ruth cared about. She was exacting in her understanding of art-making—she liked things we hadn’t seen before.”

Also not seen before, at least at this scale, was the decision-making process that led to the initial funding round. Patterson and Kim Nguyen, the foundation’s Program Director for Artistic Initiatives assembled a panel of 50 artists and charged them with recommending non-profit arts organizations that had influenced them in some way. Awardees were selected from this list. The New York Times headlined: “Arts Groups Pocket Unexpected Grants — In its first round of giving, foundation funded by a Kohler heir has surprised 78 small nonprofits.”

Polly Morris, the Executive Director of the Lynden Sculpture Garden in River Hills is also administrator of the Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowship Program which has awarded millions of dollars in grants to emerging and established local artists over 19 annual cycles. Nohl’s home in Fox Point is owned by the JMKAC; its interior is housed at the Art Preserve in Kohler, a Ruth Kohler project that opened shortly after her death. Morris tells me that Patterson’s experience as a curator will have a profound influence on the new organization.

Karen worked with Ruth, and her vision as a curator will inform the foundation. It will be ‘artist-forward’ — with artists nominating groups, which is interesting. Karen is finding her way of how things will operate, following Ruth’s principle that ‘Arts are for Everyone.'”

Still, with over $17 million to hand out annually, Morris expects funds “will be going to all kinds of programs and organizations, large and small.”

‘How it becomes instead of what it is’

As she prepared to announce the creation of the foundation, Patterson “felt an internal pressure to say something, to define our program,” she writes on its website. While grappling with this, she attended an artist discussion at Williams College on June 19th, where Rose B. Simpson, a sculptor who was one of the 50 artists who recommended grant recipients for the foundation, came up with a phrase that resonated with her, “and things started to clarify and coalesce.”

 ‘How it becomes, instead of what it is…’ That is how artist Rose B. Simpson expressed her current mindset to Monique Tyndall, Director of Cultural Affairs for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, when discussing Simpson’s monumental sculptures. Rose said it was grounding, and kept her in tune with the intentions of her practice.

‘How it becomes, instead of what it is…’ And there they were: the words I had been looking for. Instead of rushing to resolve who we are, we ground ourselves in the process of becoming. It’s not surprising that these words came from an artist. It’s a lesson I’ve learned time and time again from artists: To value the way things come together as much as — or even more than — the final result.

Ruth Kohler’s Unique Vision

If you happen to find yourself on the south side of Boyd Glacier in Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica, look up and you will see 1,570-foot-high Mount Kohler, mapped in 1939-41 and named for Herbert V. Kohler, Jr. and his sister Ruth when they were infants. Their father Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., contributed to the Byrd Antarctic Expedition. With such a lofty attainment reached before she took her first steps, Ruth launched out to explore the world around her, fascinated by art — not merely the works of the masters that she viewed in the great museums of Europe, but also homelier works that she encountered in Wisconsin while going for weekend rambles with her parents in their Packard sedan.

According to a Milwaukee Magazine profile by Mary Louise Schumacher published shortly before Ruth’s death:

On these weekend jaunts, the Kohlers spotted countless bathtub shrines. Smooth, white tubs turned on end and half buried in the dirt, they were designed to draw the eye to the Virgin Mary. One’s level of devotion could be read in the elaborateness of such structures, some of which incorporated old farm equipment.

‘One farmer would do it, and then somebody else would do it, and they’d have to make it a little bit bigger and a little bit better,’ Ruth said of the shrines in an interview for an animated short film, It’s Gotta Be In Ya, for the arts center’s 50th anniversary.

Many of these upended, white, claw-foot bathtubs were presumably manufactured by the Kohler Company, and put out to pasture when the farmer finally got around to upgrading the family bathroom, perhaps with modern, built-in Kohler tubs colored in hues like Peachblow, Horizon Blue or Spring Green.

These childhood images stayed with Kohler. Later she worked at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, housed in her grandfather’s 1870s mansion in Sheboygan. A trustee told her about Fred Smith, a logger and tavernkeeper in Phillips who had decorated his yard with concrete sculptures made from 1948 to 1964 incorporating broken beer bottles and other scraps. In 1976 the Kohler Foundation purchased the collection and preserved it largely in situ where it is now the Wisconsin Concrete Park. Since that time Kohler preserved many other sites, and assembled many collections of self-taught, outsider and visionary artists including Nohl.

In 1974, Ruth Kohler “pestered” her brother into forging an alliance between the Kohler Company and the arts center in a pioneering Arts/Industry program that brought artists into the factory, where they could avail themselves of Kohler’s enormous furnaces and ceramic-forming devices. The collaboration has produced many works, and the JMKAC got the pick of the litter, chosen with an unerring eye by Ruth.

In 1983, after receiving a tip from the Milwaukee Art Museum she visited the tiny West Allis home of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who had recently died. The house was filled with idiosyncratic artworks like thrones made of chicken bones, and apocalyptic paintings in vivid hues. Kohler acquired the contents of the home and thousands of pieces of his art. EVB, as he came to be known, was one of the first outsider artists to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work has entered the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Today many museums search out and collect outsider art, but JMKAC, guided by Kohler’s vision, collects the most, and does it the best.

Julilly Kohler, a great-granddaughter of John Michael Kohler tells Urban Milwaukee:

Ruth was an artist — not the 2- or 3-D kind, although she could do that too — but she had an artist’s unique eye that saw things we don’t, and then manifested them. She had an outsider’s eye that could see the beauty, originality and passion in work that most of us pass by.

But on top of that, she was an entrepreneur, bred in the bone, pushing her to create systems that framed and manifested her vision. The Ruth Foundation for the Arts is an original, deeply democratic way to find and support art in people’s lives across the country.

Margaret Andera, the curator of contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, told the New York Times: “Ruth Kohler was early to self-taught vernacular art. We’re used to that now, but many institutions were late to that game. She was an innovator.”

Now the Ruth Foundation for the Arts will also serve as an innovator, bringing an outsider perspective to disrupt the traditional model of arts giving as the foundation becomes over the years to come.

As Ruth, who was ever involved, said to Schumacher in the Milwaukee Magazine article: “If I could do it again, I would get involved more. … I would still proselytize for this organization forever, with my last breath.”

And beyond.

Related stories

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

One thought on “New Ruth Foundation a National Player”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    Thanks Michael and UrbanMilwaukee for putting some more detail into this exciting story for Wisconsin and artists and arts organization. During these knee-jerk times of repression and backward thinking, the Ruth Foundation could make a fantastic difference to the lives of many.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us