Ruth Carter Stevenson, philanthropist, arts patron, civic planner, and museum founder, was born on October 19, 1923, in Fort Worth. The daughter and younger of two children of Amon Giles Carter, Sr., and Nenetta (Burton) Carter, Ruth assumed the responsibility for establishing a Fort Worth museum to house her father’s vast collection of American Western artworks after his death. She presided over the Amon G. Carter Foundation, which supports numerous charitable and educational entities as well and founded the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
Ruth attended North Hi Mount Elementary School and others in Fort Worth before, at the age of fifteen, she left Texas for the elite Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. While studying at the Madeira School and later at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, Ruth Carter delved into the art world and toured landmark museums and galleries in Washington, D.C., and in New York City. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College with a chemistry degree in 1945, she returned home to marry J. Lee Johnson III of Fort Worth, on June 8, 1946. The couple had five children—Sheila Broderick Johnson, J. Lee Johnson IV, Karen Johnson Hixon, Catherine L. (Kate) Johnson, and Mark L. Johnson. She discovered her real passion for art as a young bride when her husband studied law at Notre Dame University. On a day trip from South Bend, she visited The Art Institute of Chicago and fell in love with works by the French Impressionists. When she later purchased an 1888 Vincent van Gogh landscape, her father, who was a devotee of Western artworks, was aghast. It proved to be a worthwhile investment.
In 1949 when she was just twenty-six years old, Ruth was elected to the board of the Fort Worth Art Association and immediately organized the first major American art exhibition in Fort Worth, including works by Winslow Homer. The following year she began her lifelong devotion to arts education and launched an art education program for all fifth-graders in Fort Worth.
Amon Carter’s collection, mostly works by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, had grown to about 400 pieces when he died in 1955. Ruth and her older brother, Amon G. Carter, Jr., were charged by a provision in their father’s will to build a museum to house the works. Amon Jr., having succeeded his father as publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, chose to focus on running the newspaper and left the museum business to his sister.
Imbued with a robust interest in art but no museum-building experience, she chose internationally-acclaimed architect Philip Johnson to design the museum originally named the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art. She met Johnson in Houston in the late 1950s at the dedication of a building he designed at the University of St. Thomas and persuaded him to take on her project to construct a museum in Fort Worth’s Cultural District. In addition to designing a striking building with a shellstone edifice and an east-facing view of downtown, the architect introduced Ruth to esteemed figures in the American art world, many of whom became trustees of the new museum that opened in 1961.
Andrew Walker, executive director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in 2020, wrote about Ruth Carter Stevenson:
The story of her influence is also one of innovation and accommodation. Early on while still under her father’s wish, she struggled to broaden the impact that the museum would serve for Fort Worth and the nation. Collecting just art of the American West felt limiting and so, with her nationally significant board of trustees, she set out to walk a careful line. The board adopted a methodology of “westering” that claimed there was always a frontier. This came from an historical belief current in the 1950s and codified by Bernard DeVoto in his significant work on the history of Lewis and Clark. This became part of the DNA and opened the door to collect western and eastern landscape. By and large the direction was about territorial expansion of the nation and continued through the 1970s….With her increasing involvement with the National Gallery of Art in Washington she called a close to that rationale and began with focus to build a collection of work that represented American art more generally. She was strategic and brave in all of this and built as a result a collection that engaged the many traditions that characterized the national experience.
In 1966 she secured a major Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective and began a close friendship with the renowned artist. The museum’s permanent collection grew under her watch to include works by Thomas Cole, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood, and Eliot Porter, among many other American artists. In total, some 700 artworks were gifted or bequeathed by Stevenson to the museum’s art collection. To celebrate the museum’s fiftieth anniversary in 2011, the museum acquired a rare painting by Mary Cassatt in honor of Stevenson’s decades of leadership. During her years of guidance, the museum underwent major expansions to accommodate the growth of its treasures; the 2001 expansion was one of Philip Johnson’s last projects.
Just two years after opening the museum, Ruth joined an industrious group of Fort Worth residents to pull together a collection of locally-owned art masterpieces to decorate a suite at the former Texas Hotel, where President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stayed on November 21, 1963. She was to have met the president at the hotel the next morning but had to cancel because one of her children was sick. The president phoned her at home to thank her for installing the artworks; she was said to have been shocked and saddened later that day at his tragic death and realized it was possibly his last telephone call.
The same year, Governor John Connally appointed Ruth to the University of Texas board of regents; she was only the second woman to serve in that capacity. She not only fostered preservation of the campus’s historic architecture, but she also was instrumental in helping desegregate the University of Texas System. The University of Texas at Austin, in 1992, established the Ruth Carter Stevenson Chair of Architecture. When Lady Bird Johnson asked her to serve on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts, she agreed and subsequently served also on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1979 Ruth became the first female board member of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and later she was the first woman to chair the board. Her service outside of Texas also included serving on the Visiting Committee of the Fogg Museum at Harvard. In 1987 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor invited her to the United States Supreme Court building in the nation’s capital as an honored guest at an event for women making a difference in American society.
Ruth’s passion for civic service back home in Fort Worth never waned. A legendary flood in 1949 prompted her to join others to lobby for beautification and reforestation of the Trinity River that flows through the heart of the city; she later helped lead the Streams and Valleys Committee to implement improvements for the river and its setting. She also oversaw the creation of downtown’s Water Garden, a gift from the Amon Carter Foundation. She again tapped architect Philip Johnson to design the asymmetrical, multi-level sculptured urban garden with walkways, pools, terraces, and a central plaza formed of pebbled concrete, water, plants, and trees. The 4.5-acre Water Garden was dedicated in 1974.
Her marriage to J. Lee Johnson III ended in divorce in 1980. In 1983 Ruth Carter married New York attorney John Reese (Jack) Stevenson, who chaired the National Gallery of Art board of directors on which she served. They were married until his death in 1997 in Fort Worth. Ruth Carter Stevenson died at the age of eighty-nine on January 6, 2013, at her Fort Worth home. She was buried at the Greenwood Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Fort Worth in a private ceremony.