The story of Ellen Johnson
Allen Memorial Art Museum has been for a long time a major source of pride for Oberlin College. It has a nationally-lauded collection and owes a great deal of its prestige to one woman.
Ellen Johnson was born in 1910 in Warren, Pa. to Swedish immigrants. After graduating high school, 12th in her class of 136, she took the advice of a friend and attended Oberlin College. She earned two degrees: a B.A. in 1933 and an M.A. in 1935, both in art history. Her thesis was entitled, “Modern Art and its Traditional Aspects,” foreshadowing her future of championing the scholarship of modern art.
Almost immediately after her graduation, Johnson began work in the education department of the Toledo Museum of Art and quickly became the librarian. While there, she gained a certain amount of notoriety in the art world with her essay, “In the Style of Praxiltes,” which appeared in the Magazine of Art. But after only three years in Toledo, she gravitated back towards Oberlin College where she remained for 37 years.
Johnson believed that “having good works of art in [students’] own rooms would have a health-giving effect on their thinking and feeling.” Thus her most famous and long-lasting contribution to Oberlin’s art world was started in 1940, when she put together the art museum’s first “Purchase Show” with $600 and a handful of reproductions. This revolutionary idea eventually grew into the art rental program we know today. The original fee was 25 cents.
As a professor, Johnson was an unlikely pioneer. A year after her return to her alma mater she was asked to substitute for an art history professor. When a replacement was found she didn’t want to give it up. She asked for, and was granted, permission to continue teaching, without getting paid for it. She did this while maintaining a full-time job as art librarian. She taught a non-credit course in contemporary art, which attracted huge enrollment. In 1948, she officially became a member of the faculty, one of the very few female professors at Oberlin. Five years later she was granted tenure without a PhD (she received an honorary doctorate from Oberlin in 1981).
Her classes had enrollments of as much as 400. This would be inconceivable today and is especially remarkable when one considers the smaller matriculation rate of her era. Johnson’s classes couldn’t fit in the art building and were therefore moved to Hall Auditorium. She didn’t have teaching assistants and had to read every paper herself; she fought to keep her enrollment unrestricted.
She was dedicated to the cause of expanding Allen’s collection, especially in post-war art, and still found time to participate on seven College committees and boards. She was named honorary curator of modern art in 1973 and bought the Frank Lloyd Wright House in 1968. She willed it to the College as the guest house for the art department and museum after her death, along with her personal collection of over 300 works.
Johnson broke through the “Oberlin bubble” to make contributions outside the school. For one thing, she was a prolific writer. She had four articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, wrote two books (one on Cezanne, one on Claus Oldenberg) and edited American Artists on Art from 1940-1980. She was a leader in legitimizing the academic study of American art. Her article “On the Role of the Object in Analytical Cubism” was the first of its kind.
She was offered many lectures, guest professorships and opportunities to curate shows, but had to turn many down because of her obligations at Oberlin.
It paid off. In 1975 Art in America magazine referenced her work, saying, “In no other college has the positive interaction between new work, artists and audiences been felt more deeply than at Oberlin in Ohio.” In 1977, her retirement spurred the Ellen Johnson wing of the museum, which was independently funded by an auction at Sotheby’s in New York with what was described as a veritable “who’s who in contemporary art” donating works. She was awarded the first Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award the College Art Association ever issued.
She died in 1992.