Ellen Johnson’s friendships with emerging artists in the 20th century helped build the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art.
Now, in its centennial year, the AMAM is paying homage to the Oberlin College professor of art history (1910-1992) with an exhibit titled”This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson.”
On view through May 27, it features more than 50 works that owe their presence in the AMAM’s collection to Johnson. It is the first exhibition centered on Johnson’s legacy since “The Living Object” in 1992, mounted just before her passing.
Johnson graduated from Oberlin College in 1933 and went on to earn a master’s degree in art history in 1935. She then studied abroad and worked briefly at the Toledo Museum of Art before returning to Oberlin as an art librarian in 1939.
She discovered a love of teaching when she substituted for a professor on leave, and wound up regularly instructing ad-hoc modern art courses for a decade before finally assuming a full professorship. Johnson remained at Oberlin until her retirement in 1977, when she was honored with the first teaching award granted by the College Art Association.
The title of the exhibition echoes Johnson’s oft-repeated edict to her students: “This is your art,” she would tell them, insisting they lay claim to the artistic practices of their own time before they could be digested and interpreted by critics and historians.
Johnson was a fervent advocate and astute critic of modern and contemporary art both in and out of the classroom, serving also as a frequent curator and collections adviser at the AMAM.
”This Is Your Art” highlights works that entered the museum collection through the expansive scope of Johnson’s influence and vision. They include works that she advocated for purchase; those donated in her honor; acquisitions made possible through a fund established by her friend and classmate, Ruth Roush; works by artists who participated in the exhibition series “Three Young Americans,” which ran from 1951 to 1990 and brought innovative art by relatively unknown artists to the AMAM; and works from Johnson’s personal collection, which she bequeathed to the museum.
The exhibition also encompasses works accessioned into the museum’s permanent collection from the Art Rental Collection that Johnson founded in 1940. The program allows Oberlin College students to borrow original artworks for an entire semester, and remains one of the most visible hallmarks of Johnson’s legacy on the Oberlin campus.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. The AMAM is closed Mondays and on major holidays.