Published: February 14, 2023
ROCKLEDGE, FLA. — Marilynn Johnson, curator and educator, died in Florida on November 3, 2022; she was 88 years old. She was born in Elizabeth, N.J., and graduated with honors from Duke University. She received a Master’s degree in Early American Culture from the Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware. After completing her degree, she was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before joining the curatorial staff. Working with Berry Tracy, the American Wing’s chairman, she played a pivotal role in the pioneering exhibition “19th-Century America,” which celebrated the museum’s centennial in 1970. Johnson wrote the furniture entries for the accompanying catalog. The exhibition and publication influenced generations of American museum curators and collectors in fostering an appreciation of Nineteenth Century furniture and other decorative arts.
During her time at the museum, Johnson made significant acquisitions and organized additional exhibitions, including “12 Great Quilts from the American Wing” (1974). Among Johnson’s most significant acquisitions for the Metropolitan Museum were the Herter Brothers library table from the William H. Vanderbilt house and the four-columned loggia from Laurelton Hall, Louis C. Tiffany’s country estate in Oyster Bay, installed in the American Wing’s Charles Engelhard Court in 1978.
Johnson’s first publication was her 1968 article for the Winterthur Portfolio on “John Hewitt, Cabinetmaker,” based on her Winterthur thesis. Her thesis topic reflected a lifelong interest in American Federal furniture. A talented writer, she published articles in such periodicals as House & Garden, Apollo, Nineteenth Century, and The Magazine Antiques.
Johnson continued to develop the museum’s collection of later Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century American furniture. She was an early advocate for American Arts and Crafts design, acquiring important works from Gustav Stickley’s home in Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J. She also initiated the formation of a Nineteenth Century innovative furniture collection.
Following her curatorial career in the American Wing, Johnson became curator of Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City since 1942, and under the auspices of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, oversaw its major restoration between 1981 and 1984. She worked closely with her associate Lisa Krieger to adapt the Federal-style house to contemporary use, sourcing period furniture and grounding its spaces and finishes in historical sources, with a focus on the history of New York City.
Johnson joined the curatorial team working on exhibition and catalog “In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement,” organized by the Metropolitan in 1986. In addition to her role as a consultant, she authored two catalog essays, “The Artful Interior” and “Art Furniture: Wedding the Beautiful to the Useful.”
In 1985, Johnson became the chairman of the Department of Museum Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, where she led a newly instituted two-year graduate program focusing on both European and American decorative arts from 1850 to the present. She oversaw the development of an ambitious curriculum which included courses in conservation as well as curatorial courses on writing exhibition catalogs, researching and mounting objects for display. She also oversaw the initial development of a decorative arts study collection.
Following her retirement from FIT, Johnson curated the traveling exhibition, “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages,” for Exhibitions International, which opened at the Seattle Art Museum in 2005 and traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. She also wrote its handsome and scholarly catalog, which included a number of lesser-known works.
Marilynn Johnson was both a mentor and a role model. She possessed a remarkable eye for quality and design, pioneered new avenues of collecting, and was a gifted writer. As both a curator and teacher, she was much admired by many in the field of American decorative arts.
Johnson is survived by her daughter, Lianne Lissauer, and four grandchildren.
Memorial donations designated for American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art can be made to the attention of Kate Thompson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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