Ruth Foundation for the Arts: Providing Financial Opportunities with the Guidance of Artists 

Rachel Hausmann Schall

Courtesy of Ruth Foundation for the Arts

Wisconsin has ranked between 48th-50th nationally in public arts funding over the past several years, consistently sitting at the bottom of the list of per capita spending. But it’s not as if this has stopped artists and art spaces from operating and organizing exhibitions, concerts, presentations, classes, performances, festivals, markets, and an array of other arts-related programs. Instead, it means that Wisconsin has been generating creative solutions to the financial drought for the arts that persists in our current economy. Cultural production, grassroots arts initiatives, and self-funded projects continue to rise and succeed here, regardless of public funding opportunities. While these ambitious, artist-driven programs are commendable and deserve to be recognized, there is still a glaring hurdle that looms large – funding.  

The Ruth Foundation for the Arts (Ruth Arts) is a Wisconsin-based organization that has the power and financial backbone to begin to address the shortage of funding available for arts organizations in the Midwest and beyond. The newly launched foundation is named for Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, a lifetime advocate and supporter of the arts whose legacy lives on at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, where she served as director for over 50 years, and through the creation of the Art Preserve. Now, her passion and influence will be felt through the impact of Ruth Arts, with a $440 million trust, a unique approach to arts philanthropy, and a creative distribution model. Executive Director of Ruth Foundation for the Arts Karen Patterson shares, “The task from the very beginning was to translate Ruth as a person into a foundation, honoring her spirit of generosity, experimentation, and by connecting her vision to our current times; bridging art making with community building…all in the spirit of the Midwest.” 

With an artist-driven mindset from its inception, the foundation grants funds to arts organizations via an artist nomination process. An initial group of 50 artists from differing backgrounds, at various stages in their careers, and from different cities were asked to propose organizations that had deeply impacted their practice, influenced their engagement with art, created valuable community connections, or transformed their professional career. The inaugural Ruth Arts grantees were drawn from these artists’ responses in Spring 2022. 

IN THE RIVER, performance documentation.Karthik Pandian with Mike Forcia (Bad River Anishinaabe) and Sam ArosMitchell (Texas Band of Yaqui Indians), Leila Awadallah, Lakota “Hokie”Clairmont (Hochunk / Lakota), Thomas Draskovic-Chetan Ohitika(Standing Rock Lakota), Cameron Downey, Douglas R. Ewart, LelaPierce, Jonathon Rosemond, Akičita Šuŋka-Wakaŋ Ska (Standing RockLakota), Ta Pejuta Wicahpi Win (Hunkpati Dakota Oyate) Image courtesy of the artist and Midway Contemporary Art.
Filmmaker Razelle Benally (center) of First Peoples Fund. Image courtesy of First Peoples Fund.

Kim Nguyen, Program Director of Artistic Initiatives, describes the importance of involving artists in the grantmaking process, “Ruth Arts has a close investment and interest in supporting artists. So much of our work considers how institutions can support all facets of an artist’s work. There are many different ways to support artists and we are always thinking about new strategies to remain artist-driven by letting them steer the ship.”

Karen Patterson continues, “I love working with artists. Some of the best lessons I have learned in life come from artists. It was a natural fit for us to start by reaching out to artists first to ask them to nominate organizations. Kim and I feel that artists are the best decision makers, biggest problem solvers, and natural community builders. All of those three values were what we wanted to set forward with the foundation’s mission and ethos.”

In Fall 2022, Ruth Arts announced its newest cycle of grantmaking opportunities for arts and culture organizations: their Core Grant program that gives $50,000 awards, and a Thought Leaders initiative, which provides multi-year support in the form of $300,000 over a three-year period. In addition, the foundation has also established a Legacy Fund in Ruth DeYoung Kohler’s honor, which will provide $2.5 million annually across 40 organizations, mirroring the support RDK provided to arts organizations in her lifetime focusing on education and craft, as well as organizations with an interest in artist environments. Collectively through these three new programs, in addition to the artist-nominated program, the Ruth Foundation for the Arts has already provided $12.5 million in grant funds to date…and this is just the beginning. They anticipate awarding $17 million annually and will continue to respond to the evolving needs of artists and arts and culture organizations both in the Midwest and nationally. The spring grant cycle will remain artist-nominated, the others will be through an invitation-only application process.

Among some of the first 138 recipients are Midwestern organizations like Experimental Sound Studio and Artists’ Cooperative Residency & Exhibitions (Chicago, IL), Milwaukee Film and Lynden Sculpture Garden (Milwaukee, WI), the Griot Museum of Black History and The Luminary (Saint Louis, MO), and Midway Contemporary Art and All My Relations Arts (Minneapolis, MN). Arts @ Large (Milwaukee, WI) and Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE) are in the first cohort of Thought Leaders. The foundation aims to support a variety of organizations, big or small, and is working to find solutions to the obstacles that some face when it comes to receiving funding. Karen Patterson says, “We are constantly working to expand our support of different types of spaces regardless of status or entity type.”

Resident artist Heejung Cho works in WSW’s intaglio studio. Image courtesy of Women Studio Workshop.
Arts @ Large hosts ‘Forbidden Fruit’, a collaborative and immersive exhibition featuring artists Letasha Smith, Jeff Zimpel and Buddah Fly. Photo Credit: Jeff Zimpel .

With a philanthropic structure comparable to the Andy Warhol Foundation, the presence of the Ruth Foundation for the Arts in the Midwest is no small feat. Bringing recognition to the region with sizable awards and unique grantmaking structures, Ruth Arts will continue to propel arts organizations, galleries, museums, and cultural institutions to produce captivating exhibitions and valuable community programs to be appreciated by all. 

Kim says, “Being geographically centralized and able to point in multiple directions is great, along with the Midwestern work ethic. The sense of intimacy and spirit we are trying to bring into the foundation feels true to the Midwest. It provides a way to think about cultural production here and we want to support getting the work out of this region and focus on bringing other things in. We want to create connections so people can begin to see the Midwest as a destination. We want them to see the Midwest as its own entity, not in relation to the coastal cities, but somewhere that has its own arts production and funding, its own communities, and its own support.”

Visit rutharts.org to learn more and connect on Instagram at @ruthfoundationforthearts

This article is published in Artdose Magazine Vol 34.

Published by Artdose Magazine

Founded in 2013, Artdose Magazine LLC is an independent print and digital art magazine committed to connecting and supporting the visual arts in the Midwest. Published by Frank Juárez, the magazine is premised on the belief that we all share common goals of introducing, engaging, and offering diverse art experiences. Artdose Magazine LLC appears in print as a bi-annual art magazine, through a weekly art e-newsletter and on Instagram and Facebook. About Frank Juárez Frank Juárez is a publisher, former gallery director, award winning art educator, artist, author, and arts advocate living and working in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Organizing local and regional art exhibitions, community art events, facilitating presentations, supporting artists through professional development workshops, use of social media and networking has placed him in the forefront of advancing and promoting local artists and attracting regional and national artists to collaborate, network and exhibit in Wisconsin.

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