“You were made of the stuff that makes legends”: The life and legacy of Ellen H. Johnson

Document 1: Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies | Document 2: Interview with Richard Spear | Document 3: Letter from Deborah | Document 4: An Open Letter to Ellen | Bibliography

Document 2: Interview with Richard Spear

Author: Ellen Johnson

Title: Interview conducted by Richard Spear

Date: 20 March 1977

Location: Interview conducted by Richard Spear, Ellen Johnson Papers, Series: II, Box No. 1, O. C. A.

Document Type: Typed Transcription of Interview

Transcribed by Natalia Shevin


This is an excerpt from the addendum to an interview Richard Spear conducted with Ellen Johnson in 1977 for the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. The archival record includes a second copy of this interview, with many handwritten additions by Johnson.

Spear taught Baroque art history at Oberlin College from 1965 to 2000. He also directed Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) from 1972 to 1983, at the time of this interview. Under Spear’s leadership, the Venturi Addition to AMAM was erected, home to the modern and contemporary art gallery, which is dedicated to Johnson.[1] Later he would serve as editor-in-chief of College Art Association’s The Art Bulletin from 1985 to 1988. His monographs include Caravaggio and his Followers (1975), Domenichino (Yale, 1982), and The “Divine” Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni (Yale, 1997).


Oldenburg, Claes. Three Way Plug.
Claes Oldenburg. Three Way Plug. Allen Memorial Art Museum. Accessed 1 May 2016.
Source    More Information

During the interview, Spear asked Johnson about whether art was elitist, which at first she affirmed unquestionably. Later on in the interview, she revisited his question and further explained her position. She addressed teaching art history at a liberal arts institution as an opportunity to open the public to art. Additionally, she spoke of the importance of public art, particularly outdoor sculptures such as Claes Oldenburg’s Three Way Plug. The Allen Art Museum commissioned the sculpture in 1969 for Oberlin College.[2]

Many of Johnson’s ideas compliment Athena Tacha’s views about populist art–especially in sculpture, Tacha’s medium. Tacha writes, “I feel that, given the present state of the world, it would be morally untenable to pursue an art career unless one makes art available to everyone (not just the financially or educationally privileged).”[3] Tacha expanded on this sentiment in her 1972 manifesto, “A Call To Artists for Social Action,” which employs a more forceful critique of capitalism and mass media. She writes, “The art world is a victim of over-specialization and capitalistic conditioning. Artists are closed in their ivory towers, like so many other ‘specialists’ in the sciences, technologies and other intellectual and practical fields.”[4] Tacha asks artists, who “own the power of the image” to reach out.[5] Although Johnson does not describe accessibility in the same terms, they were each other’s best friends, and influenced each other greatly.

Plug Position Studies
“3-Way Plug Position Studies, Second Set, 1970,” Allen Memorial Art Museum Art Bulletin, XXVIII, 3, Spring 1971, 227.
Claes Oldenburg’s careful attention to the position of the 3-Way Plug makes its implications for gender all the more poignant.

Johnson’s effort to bring art into the public and out of the museums (quite literally into dorm rooms and onto lawns) situates her in a legacy of Second Wave feminists who valued accessibility in their organizing. Many liberal feminists, such as the organizers of National Organization for Women, sought to flatten the hierarchy that placed women at the bottom. Through their efforts in eliminating legal barriers and discrimination, they hoped to widen employment, healthcare, and education access for women.

I have added paragraph breaks for easier reading.


Original                       Both                    Transcription


inteview page 37

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[handwritten: Addendum]-37-EJ: One of your questions that I only half answered when you were asking about elite art I said that to some extent all art is elite because only a very small, small part of the population is concerned about art at all. But then I also said that some people are born with more native sensitivity to art and more inborn interest in it than other people. However, if I didn’t feel that everyone, anyone can be helped to develop a sensitivity to art, I obviously wouldn’t have been teaching all these years. Another, one of the most gratifying things of course in teaching is to see that, which I’m sure you’ve experience many times, too, is to see that glow on a student’s face when he or she suddenly understands an idea or suddenly stands in front of a painting and really sees it and you know the student sees it, feels it throughout his whole being.

Tension Arches, Tacha, Athena
Athena Tacha. Tension Arches. Cleveland Art and History. Accessed 1 May 2016.


Related to that question of yours about elite art was another regarding public art, outdoor sculpture and such. I think the two, as I say, are interrelated because they’re, I believe very strongly, that while the public might not even be aware of the fact that a piece of sculpture is right there and they’re passing it every day, take for instance Athena’s arches that go marching along with all those hundreds of people that pass it every day on Huron Mall, downtown Cleveland, well probably there are many, many of them who aren’t even looking at that sculpture, but I feel that as I say, even when people aren’t conscious of a work being there, that work of art is affecting the person.


Streams, Athena Tacha
Athena Tacha, Streams, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, Oberlin, Ohio. Photograph by Natalia Shevin.

That is a responsibility I feel that all of us whose lives are directed in such a way toward art, should be taking to see that the environment in which people live and work is made visually as well as from the point of view of health made more desirable, and more attractive and livable. That is helping what this public art project that you talked about, the NEA grants and the others, for the general services buildings that [inserted above the line: ^are] federally supported by matching grants are grant [great] things and theyre there are many, many more I believe comparable organizations and endeavors on state and city levels that help to bring art into the everyday lives of many, of everybody in a community and I think that’s a very healthy thing that’s going on now.

The interest of the public is constantly being stimulated by this work and by the articles in newspapers and in popular periodicals like Time, etc., for maybe thirty years or more, magazines like that have been devoting every, almost every week, a serious article as Newsweek does and all the, the New York Magazine, to art. So it is something which is made to be in the consciousness of the reading public that is more and more. That’s a splendid thing.
[Proofed by Louise Wurzelbacher May 2, 2016]


Allen Memorial Art Museum
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Source
Cass Gilbert’s original 1917 building is on the left, and the Venturi Addition, which is checkered, was added in 1977.

[1] Robert Venturi explained his addition to the 1917 Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM), originally designed by Cass Gilbert, in the AMAM Bulletin alongside two tributes to Ellen Johnson. He writes, “Adding to a building by Cass Gilbert is difficult because his architecture is very good and comparisons are inevitable. Adding to the Allen Memorial Art Museum is particularly difficult because you are tampering with what has become at Oberlin an icon: adding a wing to the Art Museum is like drawing a mustache on a Madonna. It is difficult too, to add to a completed composition — a wing on a symmetrical renaissance villa, like a bowler hat on a Venus, will never look correct… We tried to make it respond on the outside to interior needs when necessary or appropriate, and, as Gilbert achieved a complex harmony with a small midwestern town, so we tried to harmonize with his masterpiece, in ways not too obvious” (Robert Venturi, “Plain and Fancy Architecture by Cass Gilbert and the Addition to the Museum by Venturi and Rauch,” in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 2, 1976-77, pp. 83-104. Source, accessed 21 June 2016).

[2] Athena Tacha, Spear’s wife, taught a course, “Form in Nature,” in 1973 which also explored the ideas of public art. Tacha’s first outdoor public sculpture was constructed in Oberlin’s Vine Street Park, perhaps due to Johnson’s influence. Streams is in the center of town, an environmentalist piece in the same park with memorials to Martin Luther King, Jr., John Brown, and the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue (Biographical Summary, Oberlin College, Source, 5 May 2016).

[3] Elizabeth McClelland, Cosmic Rhythms: Athena Tacha’s Public Sculpture (The Collier Printing Company: Wooster, Ohio, 1998), 5.

[4] The entirety of Tacha’s manifesto cannot be found; but its excerpted entry in Cosmic Rhythms reads:

“Most artists act within the limits of their own little world where they play the revolutionaries, ruminating on the ontological problems of art and splitting hairs in pseudo-philosophical jargon. They feel gratified when other colleagues acclaim their “revolutions,” when the closed ring of critics and museum people approve their doings, when the small clique of art-dealers manages to plug them into the general capitalistic machinery… They found pride in shocking the ignorant public (“épater le bourgeois”), and are still quite content to address a limited circle of connoisseurs who have learned to digest all extravagances, to the point of buying canned Merda d’artista.” In turn, this situation has had a stifling effect on art, rendering it a largely self-feeding, super-refined and ruminating process. Much contemporary art is turned in on itself, gradually dissolving into thin air, while the age-long human problems–death, suffering, the mystery of life, the unknown of the universe–are more than ever present… The greatest problem today, or rather the greatest obstacle to the solution of most problems, is the tremendous imbalance in the distribution of wealth and knowledge–worse than ever in the past, in spite of our claims to democracy…. Wretchedly inadequate public education, politically oriented newspapers, and commercial television preserve the public’s intellectual stagnation, condition its state and opinions, and gear its standards to the “average” person, so conveniently gullible for the capitalistic system… They [the artists] are the major humanizing agents of society. They must make every effort to open their art, intellectually and financially, to the masses; take it out of the museums and galleries and bring it into people’s life. Critics should try to attract the large public, to help it understand and enjoy art, to bridge the gap between the avant garde artist and the common man…. The artists can play a leading role in this information war, as they own the power of the image.”

Piero Manzoni created “Merda d’artista” [Artist’s Shit], an exhibit of ninety cans, “which he offered for sale at the current price of gold.” His provocative gesture was meant to highlight the commercialization and absurdity of the price of art (Elizabeth McClelland, Cosmic Rhythms, 21-22).

[5] Elizabeth McClelland, Cosmic Rhythms, 21.

[6] Ellen H. Johnson.

[7] Earlier in the interview, Spear asked, “What do you think about the often-said charge that modern art is elitist and really not for the public? Do you think art really is for the general public and can it be taught to them?” (Interview conducted by Richard Spear, Box No. 1, Record Group 30, Ellen Johnson Papers, Series: II, O. C. A.).

[8] Spear asked, referencing Johnson’s recollection of a conversation with Claes Oldenberg in 1962, “Do you think the new interest in ‘public art‘ is a response to that, or more simply elitist art put outdoors? … Do you think the artist working out of doors has more of a responsibility by definition to the public? The common public?” To which Johnson replied, “He does if he feels that he does. I don’t think he does unless he feels that he does.” Johnson consistently uses “he/him/his” pronouns when referring to artists generally, which is surprisingly given her own position and focus on women artists (Interview conducted by Richard Spear, Box No. 1, Record Group 30, Ellen Johnson Papers, Series: II, O. C. A.).

[9] Likely “Tension Arches,” a sculpture by Athena Tacha, Johnson’s close friend and colleague, and Spear’s wife.Tension Arches was Tacha’s first outdoor sculpture (Outdoor Sculptures and Monuments in Greater Cleveland, Source, accessed 4 May 2016.; McClelland, Cosmic Rhythms, 34).

[10] Likely what is now the Tower City Center on West Huron Avenue in Public Square.

[11] Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Richard Spear and Johnson talk earlier in their conversation about her seat on multiple panels for the NEA (Interview conducted by Richard Spear, Ellen Johnson Papers, Series II, Box No. 1, O. C. A.).