Karen Patterson
Photo: Constance Mensh
Photo: Constance Mensh

I’ve been looking for a way to articulate how we, at The Ruth Foundation for the Arts, are approaching our work. In the early days of planning, I felt an internal pressure to say something, to define our program. There are so many factors to consider, such a legacy to honor, so many ideas swirling. And then I found myself at an artist discussion at Williams College a week ago and things started to clarify and coalesce.

“How it becomes, instead of what it is…”

That is how artist Rose B. Simpson expressed her current mindset to Monique Tyndall, Director of Cultural Affairs for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, when discussing Simpson’s monumental sculptures. Rose said it was grounding, and kept her in tune with the intentions of her practice.

“How it becomes, instead of what it is…”

And there they were: the words I had been looking for. Instead of rushing to resolve who we are, we ground ourselves in the process of becoming. It’s not surprising that these words came from an artist. It’s a lesson I’ve learned time and time again from artists: To value the way things come together as much as — or even more than — the final result.

As someone who has spent the majority of my career as a curator, I have been deeply fortunate to work alongside and in service to artists. Truthfully, I feel most myself when I’m with them. Whether we are working through a project that has become delightfully—if unsurprisingly—unwieldy, or they are working through a point of view while I am looking for points of connection. I like the way artists see things: their artmaking, role in their community, the hidden gems
they’ve collected over time.

I have also seen first-hand how varied the scales and topographies that artists and practitioners operate within are—from huge institutions to two-person nonprofits; from apartment galleries to major city museums to sprawling rural art centers. Things become in all kinds of different, often unexpected ways.

As a curator, I feel particularly well-positioned to help launch Ruth Arts. To help it become by remaining anchored in what I have learned over the course of my career: that artists challenge us with the best questions, that our field is a robust ecosystem, and that there are so many great people committed to doing the work. Much of this I was privileged enough to learn directly from the late, great Ruth DeYoung Kohler II. 

One core lesson that Ruth taught me is about being grounded and aspirational all at once.

At the John Michael Kohler Art Center a few years ago, someone asked us who we thought our competition was. I said that it was football.

Namely, because we were in the midwest! But more importantly, I’ve never felt that it was helpful to be in competition with other arts organizations. There is simply too much to do in the name of culture for anything but kinship and camaraderie. I am now so excited to be adding to the incredible arts philanthropy happening across our country by a cadre of esteemed foundations.

The Green Bay Packers are famously owned by generations of fans, and I like to think about the ways in which individuals feel invested in something collective. You’d be surprised how many artists are Packers fans. 

Another lesson Ruth taught me was that good ideas need care to evolve. That care means being attentive, and willing to live within seemingly competing forces without closing yourself off: to be precise and daring, personal and universal, collective and interior, specific and receptive. 

It is in this spirit that Ruth Arts would like to stay in a continuous state of becoming. We aim to remain nimble and responsive to the ever-changing needs of our field. We want to be as agile as creativity itself, listening and evolving. The world is always changing and we intend to move with it.

“How it becomes, instead of what it is…” 

Thank you, Rose, for grounding me with this reminder. And thank you to artists everywhere, especially those who nominated the exceptional organizations that comprise our inaugural round of grantees.

And, thank you most importantly to Ruth, who so generously allowed us to become.