The Visionary Behind Art Rental

September 16, 2016

Amanda Nagy

Two students walk away from the museum, each carrying a framed artwork.
Students walk away with the prized possessions they snatched up from art rental in September. The art rental collection began with framed reproductions. Over the years, most of the reproductions have been replaced by original artworks. Since its founding, no art has ever been damaged.
Photo credit: William Bradford

Art rental is one those distinctly Oberlin traditions that can be filed under, “Wait, they really do that?”

Yes, you really can rent artworks from the Allen Memorial Art Museum for a semester.

The art rental collection dates back to 1940, thanks entirely to Ellen H. Johnson, the celebrated art professor, historian, and curator whose name certainly sounds familiar to anyone who’s entered the museum. But to the uninitiated, the full weight and gravity of her legacy at Oberlin, as well as the contemporary art world, may not be fully realized.

To wit: who was Ellen Johnson, why was she such a powerful force, and what gave her the idea to rent artwork to students?

The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Ellen Hulda Elizabeth Johnson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin in the early 1930s. She went on to postgraduate study at Uppsala university in Stockholm and the Sorbonne in Paris. After a brief stint as a lecturer and cataloguer at the Toledo Museum of Art, she returned to Oberlin in 1939, as an art librarian and a part-time instructor.

Shortly after arriving at Oberlin, Johnson introduced several firsts: she started the college’s first film series; she organized “Picture Shows” that allowed students, faculty, and Oberlin community members to buy original works of art; and with $700 to purchase and frame reproductions of art masterpieces, she began one of the earliest, if not first, college art rental collections in the country. Gradually over the next few decades, many of the reproductions were replaced by originals.

In an undated video clip, Johnson explains the idea behind art rental. “I simply thought it was a nice thing for the students to take a work of art home to their dormitory rooms and look at it all semester. That way, they’d get to find out some of its meaning, respond to the qualities that it has, and if they didn’t like it in the beginning, maybe they would after they’d lived with it. The best way to learn to like something is to live with it…or find out you don’t like it.”

Living with Art

In the year after she arrived at Oberlin to be the art librarian, Johnson was asked to take a teaching appointment in the fine arts department, where she discovered her love of teaching. Her courses in contemporary art were so popular that she became a member of the regular teaching faculty. She was one of only a handful of women professors at Oberlin, and despite her lack of a PhD, she was granted tenure in 1953.

In addition to her teaching, Johnson was an active writer, curator, and collector of art.

On a national level, she became a leading specialist in American and European contemporary art. She was in demand both at Oberlin and elsewhere as a visiting lecturer and professor. Among the courses she taught at Oberlin were 19th and 20th century art, a museum course, American art from colonial times, and Scandinavian art. At the time, the Scandinavian course was the only one of its kind in the country.

She gave the work of several prominent New York artists early exposure through her curatorship of the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s (AMAM) well-known Young Americans series, having exhibited works by Claes Oldenburg, Larry Poons, and Bruce Nauman before the artists were widely known. Oldenburg’s first site-specific sculpture, Three Way Plug, was commissioned by Johnson in 1970.

Johnson’s persistence in seeking young artists and acquiring their work helped make the AMAM one of the country’s leading institutions in the contemporary art field. She personally acquired Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko and Persephone by Adolph Gottlieb for the museum, where they are on view in the Stern Gallery. She bequeathed her eclectic art collection, ranging from Cezanne to the American contemporary artist Judy Pfaff, to the AMAM. In her honor, the main portion of an addition to the museum, designed by Robert Venturi and opened in 1977, was named the Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art.

Johnson authored nearly a hundred articles and essays. She had four articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica. She published three books: Cezanne (1967), Claes Oldenburg (1971), and edited American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980 (1982). A collection of her essays was published in 1977, as Modern Art and the Object. In 1977, the museum published a bibliography of Johnson’s writings in the Bulletin of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson was published posthumously by her friends in 1993.

For many years, Johnson lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The home was occupied by the Weltzheimer family until 1963, when the property was sold to developers and remodeling efforts scarred the space. Johnson purchased the home in 1968, and painstakingly restored it. At her death in 1992, the house was given to the college to serve as a guesthouse for the art department and the museum.

Art rental is still thriving and more popular than ever among students who wait in line for hours, even camp out in the dead of winter, for a chance to live with art for a semester. Only that way can they decide for themselves if they like it ... or not.

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