Ruth DeYoung Kohler II’s Legacy Lives on Through This New Art Foundation

The Ruth Foundation for the Arts will provide funding to arts organizations in Milwaukee and beyond.

The Ruth Foundation for the Arts is marking its debut in the landscape of nationwide arts philanthropy with the announcement of its inaugural grantmaking cycle.  

The new Milwaukee-based foundation, also known as Ruth Arts, is supported by a bequest from the late Ruth DeYoung Kohler II and expects to award grants totaling more than $17 million annually. The first class of Ruth Arts grantees — an initial round of funding that precedes the regular giving cycles that the organization will embark upon later this year — includes 78 nonprofit arts organizations that have been awarded a total of $1.25 million in funding.  

The inaugural Ruth Arts grantees include two Milwaukee organizations – Milwaukee Film Festival, a nonprofit that hosts the annual citywide film festival and provides year-round educational and cultural enrichment, and Arts @ Large, which works to provide equitable access to educational experiences that include the arts.  

The individual grants range from $10,000 to $50,000 each. The foundation is led by Executive Director Karen Patterson, who was most recently director of exhibitions at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and senior curator at Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts, alongside program director Kim Nguyen, former curator and head of programs at the California College of the Arts Wattis Institute in San Francisco.  



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Under their leadership, Ruth Arts will seek to explore new possibilities in arts philanthropy that safeguard creativity and take a people-centric approach.  

“I am honored to continue Ruth’s exceptional legacy in such an impactful way,” Patterson said. “She has shown us that a thriving art community requires support for the entire ecosystem, from exhibition spaces, to festivals, to archives, to art environments, to residencies and to school programs. We are truly a multidimensional field. We rely on one another. And none of these things would be possible without artists.”  

Built from the inspiration and bequest of Kohler, a lifelong advocate for the Midwest’s artistic community, Ruth Arts’ mission embraces the ethos of the region while operating at a national scale.  

Kohler, who died in 2020, was a member of the family that built Wisconsin-based Kohler Co. into a global giant in furniture, tile, engines and the luxe plumbing fixtures, for which it is most famous.  

Throughout a lifetime commitment to the arts, Kohler focused on breaking down hierarchies and categories within the art world to center on artists, support communities and engage with overlooked art forms. She served as chairwoman and member of the Wisconsin Arts Board, acted as a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Organization panel member and past site evaluator, as founder of the Preservation Committee of Kohler Foundation Inc., and director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for more than 40 years.  

Kohler promoted equitable and inclusive access to the arts in her local community, home state of Wisconsin and on national and international levels. 

Related: A Journey to Understand the Life and Works of Ruth DeYoung Kohler II

The organizations funded in this initial round of grantmaking from Ruth Arts come from 29 states and range widely in size. In keeping with the spirit of Ruth Arts, which places a particular emphasis on the support of creativity in all its forms, with a emphasis on the unconventional and exciting, grantees were not confined to particular fields or genres of work and span a broad spectrum.  

Ruth Arts launches with a unique artist-driven nomination process for this initial round of grants, which was guided by a group of nearly 50 artists. These artists, drawn from across the country and at all stages of their careers, were asked to propose organizations they felt had deeply influenced their own engagement with art, presented visionary community programming and connected deeply with artists’ processes.  

Although grants will remain on an invitation-only basis for a twice-annual cycle as the foundation grows and develops, Ruth Arts will continue to work with artists to guide and inform its programming and will host its artist nominating processes on a regular basis.  

“I was really excited when Karen asked me to nominate an organization,” said Rose B. Simpson, a mixed-media artist based in New Mexico. “I felt that the power dynamics around institutions could change, that support could come from real experiences and community dedication rather than big talk and hierarchies.”  

In addition to its grantmaking, Ruth Arts also plans to pilot several important partnerships in the coming years, including establishing an artist advisory committee, a visiting artists program for art schools, a fellowship program for artists and research grants for cultural workers.  

The next cycles of Ruth Arts’ grants will be announced later this year and will total approximately $17 million, reflecting the expected annual valuation of grants moving forward. 




Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.