RACINE — For many, Karen Johnson Boyd helped put Racine on the map.
Boyd’s lifelong support of the arts included more than 1,750 contributions to the Racine Art Museum.
But it was a 1991 gift of 200 artworks that established the museum as a national leader in contemporary crafts and helped the organization amass the largest such collection of any U.S. art museum.
“There are people around the country who know about Racine because of what this museum is famous for,” said Bruce Pepich, a longtime friend of Boyd’s and executive director and curator of collections at Racine Art Museum.
Boyd, 91, died Friday of natural causes. She was the daughter of H.F. Johnson Jr. and sister of Sam Johnson, both former chairmen of SC Johnson.
Advocate for the arts
Boyd’s long history with the Racine Art Museum stretches back to the early 1940s when she was in a Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts competition as an exhibiting artist, Pepich said.
Boyd had an early interest in art — her grandfather was a post-Impressionist painter and led Cornell University’s art department. She began amassing a wide-ranging collection after she was exposed to two collections of art that SC Johnson assembled, and in her adult life donated artwork to numerous museum collections across the country.
In 1982, she opened Perimeter Gallery in Chicago, where she helped promote craft artists and artists with Wisconsin ties.
“Karen Boyd’s enthusiasm for the arts was a joy to be around; her vision was clear and her curiosity kept her young,” Perimeter Gallery Director Frank Paluch said in a statement. “She championed many unknown artists who went on to have successful career in the arts. We will miss her dearly.”
The Racine Art Museum has been closely aligned with her since the 1991 donations, which Pepich called a tipping point for the organization.
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She was actively involved in the effort to establish the Racine Art Museum, which opened at 441 Main St. in 2003 with the galleries named after her.
Boyd was named board emerita and visited the museum regularly, Pepich said, always interested in the museum’s business and new displays at the museum.
The museum will now be a place that “tells her story through the work she has given to us,” Pepich said.
“We’ll be grieving for a while, but also at the same time … we’ll be celebrating all the wonderful things about the extraordinary life that this woman had,” Pepich said.
Her support of the arts has been long recognized. She received several lifetime achievement awards, including the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Boyd was married and had four children. On Friday, the Johnson family issued the following statement:
“It is with deep sadness that we say goodbye to Karen Johnson Boyd, who passed away today surrounded by her family. She was an incredibly supportive wife, mother and aunt, and brought so much joy to all of us. She also was a devoted and visionary champion of the arts and the Racine community, her home for 91 years. She will be greatly missed.”
Boyd was a playful, kind, thoughtful person with a wonderful sense of humor, Pepich said. She constantly thought about how to improve public education about art, make things better for artists and encourage talented children.
“She was very much a person who looked outside to the local community and, even further, to the world to do things that actually made those kinds of things possible,” Pepich said.
Despite her wealth and connections all over the world, Boyd always called Racine home. She died in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home she commissioned.
“I can’t underscore too strongly how she loved this community,” Pepich said. “She could have lived anywhere in the world she wanted to, but she lived and died in the town that she was born in, and that to me is very significant.”
"We’ll be grieving for a while, but also at the same time … we’ll be celebrating all the wonderful things about the extraordinary life that this woman had."
— Bruce Pepich, executive director and curator of collections at Racine Art Museum, speaking about the passing of Karen Boyd Johnson