Ellen H. Johnson, Author and Professor, Oberlin College, 19101992


“You won’t like this portrait," the painter Alice Neel told her subject, Oberlin College art history professor Ellen Johnson, “because I’m making you look a little askew. But you are a little askew.”

Not done yet, she added, “You certainly aren’t square.”

No, no one would ever accuse Johnson of being square.

A champion of contemporary artists long before they became well-known art-world names, Johnson, a scholar, collector and important influence on the collection of Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, was “one of the first academics to teach and acquire contemporary art seriously,” according to the Dictionary of Art Historians. The New York Times called her a "powerful force in the promotion of contemporary art” on a national level.

Born in 1910 in Warren, Pennsylvania, to Swedish immigrants, Johnson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin in the early 1930s and, after additional studies (including at the Sorbonne) and a stint at the Toledo Museum of Art, returned to the college as art librarian and part-time instructor, eventually rising to full professor.

Beginning in the 1950s, Johnson began organizing biennial shows at the Allen known as the Young Americans exhibitions, which featured over the years such now-celebrated artists as Claes Oldenburg, Larry Poons, Jackie Winsor, Joan Mitchell and Frank Stella. In time she turned the Allen into one of the mightiest museums of its size by collecting superb contemporary art while larger, more established institutions expressed little interest in such cutting-edge work. While her activism kept the Allen in the forefront, it also kept a number of emerging artists from starving. Johnson provided important support at important times in their careers, and they repaid her with devotion and loyalty that translated into even greater acquisitions for the museum.  Among them are Eva Hesse’s Laocoon of 1966 and Oldenburg’s first site-specific sculpture, Giant Three-Way Plug, in 1970.

When it came time to build an addition to the Cass Gilbert-designed museum building, she was instrumental in choosing the firm of Robert Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, which built what is considered to be one of the earliest examples of postmodern architecture in the United States. The addition, which opened in 1977, contains the Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Johnson’s contribution to the region’s architectural heritage also has a personal aspect: She bought and restored—and bequeathed to Oberlin College—an original Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house.

Even late into her life (she died in 1992 at the age of 81) she continued to champion underappreciated artists. A 1995 edition of her book of essays, Modern Art and the Object, published posthumously under the direction of her friend and colleague Athena Tacha, includes five additional essays about artists, all of whom happen to be women, including a lecture 74-year old Johnson had delivered on then little-known Sherrie Levine.

Johnson’s influence extendedwell beyond northern Ohio in the form of the thousands of students with whom she shared her enthusiasm for art, particularly contemporary painting and sculpture.

Her belief in the transformative power of art is nowhere better illustrated than with the program she initiated more than 60 years ago that allowed Oberlin students the opportunity to rent for the semester original works of art by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Pollock, Renoir and Warhol. Although the price has risen over the years—it’s now five bucks per work—the program is still going strong.

Living with art, she passionately believed, “would develop the aesthetic sensibilities of students and encourage ordered thinking and discrimination in other areas of their lives.”

—Jeff Hagan


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org