Kohler Co.

2011 BCA 10 Hall of Fame Honoree

Kohler Co., Kohler, WI

"The words of John Ruskin are ingrained in the fabric of this company: 'Life without labor is guilt. Labor without art is brutality.' We bring creativity and a sense of the arts to everything we do — from Kohler plumbing and power, hospitality and golf, and Baker and McGuire furniture to the support of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s Arts/Industry program on the factory floor. The arts refresh lives and inspire leadership."

- Herbert V. Kohler, Jr., Chairman and CEO, Kohler Co.

Over its 138 years, Kohler Co. has expanded from plumbing products into a global multi-industry leader, driving innovation and a single level of quality in each of its core businesses: kitchen and bath, interiors, engines and power systems, hospitality and golf. Kohler Co.’s support of the arts stems, in part, from the value it places on design, innovation, and craftsmanship in every product. The importance of the arts is palpable as soon as you enter its corporate headquarters in Wisconsin, where a vibrant mural created in 1925 by Arthur Covey depicts the life of the factory.

Through the years, Kohler Co. has funded the arts at museums, performing arts centers, art schools and universities across the country. Over four decades ago, the company began to support an unusual and spirited grassroots effort that “makes real the power of the arts to transform lives and strengthen communities.” Named John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) because of its beginnings in the 1882 home of Kohler Co.’s founder, JMKAC is an independent organization, nationally acclaimed today for the creative exchange it generates between an international community of artists and a broad, diverse public — through remarkable exhibitions, collections, residency programs, performing and media arts, and a wide range of arts education opportunities.

Among the Arts Center’s most well known programs is Arts/Industry, a unique collaboration with Kohler Co. that takes place in the manufacturing plant at the company’s headquarters. The program is developed and administered by JMKAC with major funding from Kohler Co. Arts/Industry makes the facilities and technologies of the company’s Pottery, Iron and Brass Foundries and Enamel Shop available annually to approximately 16 artists from around the world. More than 500 artists, generally 4 at a time, have been involved since 1974.

In residencies of 2 to 6 months, the artists are able to explore new ways of thinking and working and to create bodies of work that are not possible in their own studios. Works have included sculptural and functional forms, murals, temporary installations and major public art commissions for parks, convention centers and other sites from Oregon to North Carolina. Arts/Industry provides studio space in the factory that is accessible to the artists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They also receive free materials, use of equipment, technical assistance, photographic services, housing, round-trip transportation from their homes and modest honoraria.

The value of Arts/Industry to Kohler Co. and the region is manifold. The artists’ involvement in the factory and the community energize the associates, and a creative synergy develops not only with the designers but also with engineers, slip casters, enameling specialists, etc. The cross-pollination leads, at times, to innovative ideas regarding products. In addition, each artist spends one day per month in education programming at JMKAC and schools and universities.

The artists generally produce relatively large bodies of work that belong to them. Each artist is asked to give one work to the company and one to JMKAC. These pieces are exhibited at JMKAC, throughout Kohler Co.’s Wisconsin campus and at its Kohler Design Center, a showcase for the company’s products. In addition, works have been shown in museums and galleries worldwide. The company’s collection made its global debut in China in 2009 at Beijing’s notable 798 Art Zone —the first stop of a multi-city tour.