A new arts organization funded with a staggering $440 million bequest from the late bathroom-fixture heiress Ruth DeYoung Kohler II just announced its inaugural class of grant recipients.

For its first initiative, the Milwaukee-based Ruth Foundation for the Arts is awarding nearly $1.3 million to 78 arts nonprofits across the U.S. The foundation expects to ultimately award more than $17 million in grants annually, making it one of the leading philanthropic arts organizations in the country.

Kohler, who died in 2020, was a Midwestern arts advocate who served at the Wisconsin Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Her biographer noted that she “broke down hierarchies and categories within the art world to center artists, support communities, and engage with overlooked art forms.”

The new organization is led by Kim Patterson, who was most recently director of exhibitions at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and was previously a curator at Wisconsin’s John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts.

“I am honored to continue Ruth’s exceptional legacy in such an impactful way,” Patterson said in a statement. “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.”

Kim Patterson. Courtesy of the Ruth Foundation for the Arts.

Kim Nyugen joins her as program director, bringing experience from a previous role as curator and head of programs at the CCA Wattis Institute.

“We feel particularly suited to support the kind of art making and community building that happens here in the Midwest,” Patterson told Artnet News. “The kind of neighborly, grassroots, show-up-for-each-other work that happens here, and the boundary-busting, interdisciplinary, let’s-try-and-see work that happens here, too.”

The foundation asked nearly 50 artists from across the country, including Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Didier William, and Rose B. Simpson, to recommend nonprofits that had influenced their own practices. The foundation then chose the final grantees from this input.

The grantees include Brooklyn-based Smack Mellon, the Tamir Rice Foundation in Cleveland, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the Milwaukee Film Festival. The organizations hail from 29 states, though the the New York City metropolitan area dominated the list, nabbing 17 of the 78 total awards.

Women’s Studio Workshop interns Aurora Bush and Judith Tong assist Veronica Jackson in the silkscreen studio. The Rosendale, NY based organization is amongst the first class of grant awardees. Courtesy of the Women’s Studio Workshop.

“I was really excited when Karen asked me to nominate an organization,” Simpson said in the statement. “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.”

While the organization wanted to prioritize funding for its initial effort, it said it may develop other programs over time, perhaps including an artist advisory committee, a visiting artist program for art schools, an artist fellowship program, and research grants for cultural workers.

“We are earnest in our efforts to do the good work,” Patterson said. “Artists wear many hats here, so the blurriness between community connection and art making is natural, and, for me, generative. So while we will focus many of our efforts in the Midwest, and likely pilot a lot of our programs here, that ethos carries over into the way we work with grantees and programs across the country.”

In the meantime, the Ruth Foundation for the Arts will keep offering invitation-based awards in two cycles each year. The next one will be announced later in 2022.

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