The Kohler Art Library is named in honor of four of seven Kohler family siblings: Walter J. Kohler, Sr., Evangeline Kohler, Marie C. Kohler, and Lillie B. Kohler. Their brother, Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., served as a member of the Elvehjem Art Center Fundraising Campaign and was instrumental in the beginnings of the art library. Funds for the Kohler Art Library were provided by Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., the Kohler Company and the Kohler Foundation. The Kohler Foundation is primarily interested in supporting education, arts, and preservation initiatives in Wisconsin.
The Kohlers were a civic-minded family with a strong interest in serving the public good. Their activities ranged from participation in state government to engagement with social issues such as child welfare, housing and town planning, home improvement, and education. In addition, their parents, John Michael Kohler and Lillie Vollrath Kohler, instilled in their children an avid interest in books as well as an appreciation for art, music, and theater. It is fitting that the Kohler Art Library is named after a Wisconsin family with a strong philanthropic tradition of supporting education and the arts.
Walter J. Kohler was elected Governor of Wisconsin in 1928 and for six years served as a regent at the University of Wisconsin. Evangeline Kohler chaired the art committee of the Kohler Women’s Club. Marie C. Kohler served as first President of the Kohler Foundation and erected Waelderhaus, a meeting place for the Girl Scouts of Kohler. After receiving a B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin, she taught literature at Sheboygan High School from 1901-1904. Lillie B. Kohler was active in child welfare through Friendship House, championed the beautification of the home through the Better Homes of America program, and served as President of the Kohler Garden Club.
The Kohler Art Library opened in 1970, combining Professor Oskar Hagen’s library in the Department of Art History with the art titles in the Memorial Library (some of which were originally in the Wisconsin Historical Society collection), forming a collection of 48,000 volumes in 12,000 square feet of space. From 1970 until 1999, William C. Bunce, the first director of the Kohler Art Library, made vigorous expansions to the collection, building toward its current 185,000 volumes. In the early 1980s, the Kohler Art Library installed the first moveable compact shelving in the UW-Madison library system.