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RG 30/243 - Ellen Hulda Elizabeth Johnson (1910-1992)
Scope and Content

Ellen Johnson was a teacher, writer, artist, collector of contemporary art, and world traveller. Papers of this faculty member unevenly document the career of an extraordinary woman who worked and taught at Oberlin College for 38 years. In order to gain a grasp of the uniqueness and extent of Johnson's contributions to the world of contemporary art and the teaching of modern art history, one must access the research files and assorted papers donated to the Archives of American Art.

The collection is organized into seven series. These series are: I. Biographical Files, 1933-1994; II. Correspondence and Memorandum, 1944-1977; III. Committee Files, 1956-1973; IV. Files Relating to Instruction, 1940-1977; V. Miscellaneous Files, 1948-72; VI. Files of Her Talks and Writings, 1937-1987; and VII. Photographic Negatives and Prints, 1930-56 and undated.

The "Biographical Files" (Series I.), mostly clippings and tear sheets, document aspects of Ellen Johnson's academic and personal life. Included is documentation of seven of her awards and honors. Of special interest are the two files documenting her honorary doctorate from Oberlin in 1981 and her retirement memorial, "The Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art." Unfortunately, the latter does not contain project development materials. Instead, to be found here are the official Oberlin College announcements, an invitation to the show preceding the fundraising auction, and the Sotheby's catalog of that auction, all dated 1975. The genealogical information file (1933-1992) contains the usual obituary and "Memorial Minute" as well as her B.A. commencement program. Materials pertaining to her death were placed among her papers after her death by the executrix of her estate, Athena Tacha, a fellow art professor and long time friend. The two "Estate files" are of particular interest because they elucidate the disposition of two of her most significant assets. First is the 1980 contract between Johnson and Oberlin College outlining the use of the Frank Lloyd Wright House during and after her death. The second is the 1994 Inventory of her papers given to the Archives of American Art. Finally, this series contains six files covering a sample of the writings about Ellen Johnson appearing in newspaper articles and periodicals. The oral history transcript by Richard Spear (1977) is worthy of note as the most exhaustive research done about her inspirations and work.

The Collection's Series II. is "Correspondence and Memorandum Files, 1944-1977." The Series consists of only two files, "Correspondence, 1957-1977" and "Memorandum, 1944-1977." The content of these files are scanty considering the number of friends and colleagues she acquired throughout her life and the length of her career. The Correspondence file consists mainly of protocol letters from three Deans of the College of Arts and Science, William Hellmuth, Donald Reich, and Robert Longsworth, announcing the Chairs of the Department of Art. Three exceptions exist to these business letters. The exceptions are personal letters, all written in 1975, to her sister Elva (Mrs. Louis Weber) of Erie, Pennsylvania. The incomplete memorandum file consists of the usual campus or department wide general memoranda (duplicated) covering the years 1944 to 1977. In 1965 she instituted the practice of labeling the first page in the lower left hand column to assist in retrieval from her files. In addition to these labels, her hand written comments appear throughout the memoranda.

In terms of professional service, Johnson's greatest contribution was her work with the Allen Memorial Art Museum. With her energetic support and world-wide reputation, the museum became known as one of the finest collegiate art museum's in the United States. Johnson's other academic involvement, namely committee membership, was minimal. Of the eight committee files in Series III. ("Committee Files"), she served on only one - the Library Committee; but she was a permanent and active member of the Museum's Aquisitions Committee. Johnson retained a small number of reports and minutes from six committees and one professional association, in which she had an interest. These are: the American Association of University Professors (1959 & 1965); the Committee on College Planning (1958-1962) with her margin notes; the Creative Arts Committee (spring, 1971) with the proposal for the Inter Arts Council; the Committee on the Status of Women (1971-1973); the Oberlin College Teaching Association (1973); Three Course, Three Term Plan (1959-1968); and Winter Term (1967-1971).

In "Files Relating to Instruction" (Series IV.), researchers will acquire only a glimpse of her career as a teacher and art historian. Her curricula development files are deposited with the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. Substantiating her reputation as an outstanding college professor is difficult to establish from these files alone; but when one combines them with other papers, her concern for students and her thorough course preparation can be clearly seen. Her class bibliographies are extensive and diverse. Many of the recommended readings were written by the artists under study. Her grade books substantiate the popularity of her courses among a wide variety of students. Student research papers, of which the series has almost 200, selected by her over the years, are complete with Johnson's handwritten margin notes.

Among "Miscellaneous files" (Series V.) are materials underscoring Johnson's long and productive career with the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Most important is the file of use statistics and notes regarding the Art Rental Program. Other records (accounts, collection lists, and correspondence) pertaining to this program are part of the files deposited with the Archives of American Art. Conceived by Johnson in 1940 and still active today, she maintained a record of who rented the art works, how many were rented, and what art was most popular. Humorous comments are found in her hand in the margins of statistical lists. Other files in this series offer brief glimpses at the more mundane side of being a college professor at a small private college. As a single woman, she was not without concern for her future. This may explain why she collected many of the college's informational documents pertaining to retirement.

Johnson was a prolific writer. This collection contains many but not all of her published essays and articles in Series VI. "Talks & Writings." All of these are in a finished form, except for one set of printer's galleys and a typed draft of an article. A more complete run and Johnson's background research files are to be found among her papers donated to the Archives of American Art. Thus, Johnson's personal papers do not give us much information on the process Johnson followed to produce her pieces. Yet, a small folder survives with her hand-written and typed notes to herself. Only one text of a public speech and four announcements are a part of this series, although from biographical sources it is known that Johnson was in frequent demand as a speaker and visiting professor. Texts of her speeches are among the papers at the Archives of American Art. The non-textual materials are early photographs - some printed and some still in negative form - from her days as a college student at Oberlin through the mid-1950's. As a portraitist, in her early career Johnson was an accomplished photographer and she apparently took pictures all through her life. In many ways these early prints give a view of her eye to nature and her intimate connection with other people. Owing to a fire at her home in 1956, much of her photography was lost. The photographs in this collection are those that survived and are of friends, family, members of the Oberlin community, and places she visited in her travels.

Series Descriptions

Series I. Biographical Files, 1933-1994 (0.4 l.f.)

Consisting of 12 file units, this Series reports on the academic life and person of Ellen Johnson. Included is information on four of her Awards and Honors (1975, 1978 & 2 in 1983); genealogical data covering six decades (1933-1992); details on her Frank Lloyd Wright House (1980); the donation of her papers to the Archives of American Art (1994); and six files covering writings about Ellen Johnson in the form of photocopied newspaper articles and periodical tear sheets. A 39 page oral history transcript exists that contains both a rough and edited version of the 1977 interview conducted with Johnson by Richard Spear. The Series is arranged alphabetically and thereunder are arranged chronologically.

Series II. Correspondence and Memorandum, 1944-1977 (2f)

The Correspondence file, 1957-1977, is incomplete numbering only 15 items (one addition by Athena Tacha in 1986). It is mostly routine letters from the Deans of the Arts and Science Division. All other letters are from college departments or committees except three personal letters from 1975. The Memorandum File, 1944-1977, consists mostly of duplicated general memoranda to Oberlin faculty concerning a variety of college administrative activities. Both file units are arranged chronologically.

Series III. Committee Files, 1956-73 (0.2 l.f.)

The files contain minutes, reports, and memoranda from seven committees. Almost all is in duplicated form for general distribution to faculty with Johnson's margin notes. Memoranda from the American Association of University Professors (1959 & 1965) and reports of the Oberlin College Teaching Association (1973) are included among these files. The margin notes throughout the files show Johnson often voting with the minority or dissenting from the mainstream. The Series is arranged alphabetically and the files thereunder are arranged chronologically.

Series IV. Files Relating to Instruction, 1940-77

Two files, within this Series, contain an incomplete set of Johnson's course bibliographies and syllabi covering three decades. There are 54 grade books, 1940-77, organized chronologically and a considerable body (1 l.f.) of student papers were also organized chronologically and date from 1960 through 1972.

Series V. Miscellaneous Files, 1948-1972, n.d. (0.2 l.f.)

Files relating to Johnson's professional interests, including the Art Rental Program, the Allen Memorial Art Museum, College Budgets, Curricula in Fine Arts, Committee Reports, and a file of College Rules and Regulations. The Series is organized alphabetically and thereunder arranged chronologically.

Series VI. Talks and Writings, n.d.

In these two small files are to be found bibliographies of the writings of Ellen Johnson dated 1964 & 1975, and some handwritten and typed notes she wrote to herself (n.d.). A third file contains two invitations to a public speaking engagement by Johnson, along with the original text to a speech. The bulk of the Series is represented by files of her published works in tear sheets, offprints, and photocopies. These latter files are arranged alphabetically by title.

Series VII. Non-textual Material, 1930-56, n.d. (1 l.f. and one oversized box)

Photographic negatives and prints taken by Johnson of family, friends, the Oberlin community, works of art, and her travels, circa 1930 to 1960. About one half of the negatives are 35mm film rolls in 24 canisters and the other half are 2.25 square negatives bundled in 160 jackets by Johnson. The prints (0.2 l.f.) consist of 20 8x10, 2 5x7, 4 3x5, and 12 various small sizes. Where dates are available the negatives are arranged chronologically.


The papers of Ellen Johnson were received from Athena Tacha in 1994. In November 2000, the Oberlin College Archives received two Guest books (with three insert drawings) from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and three artworks from Athena Tarika [acc. 2000/099]. Also included were photos (with negatives) of the insert drawings.

Related Materials

See videotapes (RG 37) for Alice WEston's conversation with Ellen Johnson. (acc. 1998/093)

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