Sona Karakashian Johnston, a retired senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art who served the institution for 40 years, died of dementia March 20 at Roland Park Place. She was 83 years old.
“Sona focused on Baltimore and she was able to establish it and its collections as important,” said Doreen Bolger, former BMA director. “She joined others in making Baltimore a premier center for art and culture, one of her most important assets.”
“She had a deep knowledge of established European art and an interest in American art – a perfect fit for the Baltimore Museum of Art,” Ms. Bolger said.
Born in Boston and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of Karakin Karakashian, a home builder, and his wife, Menoush Nazaretian, a homemaker. They were Armenian refugees.
She graduated from Newton High School in 1958 and won a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in painting and art history.
In 1961, she entered the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where she studied, became a slide librarian and met her future husband, William R. Johnston. He later served as curator of the Walters Art Museum. They married in 1967.
She was soon hired as a lecturer at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and helped lead a 1965 tour of the Soviet Union. She and her group traveled to cities in Uzbekistan, including Samarkand and Tashkent.
After moving to Baltimore in 1967, she became assistant curator at the Peale Museum on Holliday Street near City Hall.
She joined the staff of the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1970. She was first assistant curator and later became senior curator of painting and sculpture. She retired in 2010.
Tom Freudenheim, a former director of BMA, said: “We had known each other since graduate school and Sona was a serious and capable researcher and art curator. She was elegant and had a grace in her. In the world of museums, when there can be chaos, she floated above everything.
“Sona was a genius,” said Stiles T. Colwill, former chairman of the board of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “She also had a beautiful voice, and when she spoke, everyone stopped to hear what she had to say and to listen to her aesthetic comments. She was always right.
She established herself as the expert on Theodore Robinson, the American impressionist whose paintings had been purchased by Etta Cone with her sister Claribel in the 19th century. By carefully reading Robinson’s diaries, she discovered that he was a close friend of Claude Monet.
Mrs. Johnston has been described as a meticulous, exacting and passionate Robinson scholar.
“Sona is a remarkable treasure to us,” said a 2004 Sun quote from BMA curator Jay Fisher. “He’s an object-focused person, a very visual person. She has an artist’s sensitivity to materials and the experience of making art.
“She’s much more visually oriented than most curators,” her husband said in the 2004 article.
“Sona isn’t comfortable with a lot of drama,” Mr. Fisher said in 2004. “Her choices are more polished and well-orchestrated. She’s not the kind of curator who wants a wild burst of color. murals in the galleries.
Doreen Bolger, former director of the BMA, said: “We met in the 1970s when she was studying the works of Robinson and I was working on the impressionist J. Alden Weir. She stepped forward and offered help. It was an example of how his reach extended beyond the city.
She organized the BMA show In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson in Giverny.
“Her expertise and interests were broad and extensive, as she curated numerous exhibitions of American and French art,” BMA curators Katy Rothkopf and Laura Albans said in a statement from the museum.
Ms Johnston has also written and produced museum catalogs including Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court from 1989 and American Masterpieces from the Peabody Art Collection from 1983.
She also wrote American Paintings 1750-1900 from the Collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art, as well as the traveling exhibition and catalog Faces of Impressionism.
Mrs Johnston, with her husband, William Johnston, co-hosted The Triumph of French Painting, who explored 19th and early 20th century French art in the collections of the BMA and the Walters Art Museum. The show traveled widely and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.
She organized the 2003 relocation of the BMA’s 15th-19th century European art collection to the Jacobs Wing.
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“Throughout her successful career, she has curated many small and large installations and exhibitions for the Museum,” the BMA statement read.
“She was instrumental in securing the George A. Lucas Collection for the BMA’s permanent collections and has always cherished its importance,” Ms. Rothkopf and Ms. Albans said. “She made many important acquisitions for the Museum, both for the European and American collections, as for many years she was the curator responsible for the Jacobs Wing and the American collection of painting and sculpture, as well as of the mosaics of Antioch. It was an incredible feat.
Friends said she was proud of her Armenian heritage and often spoke of her parents who were Armenian refugees. She was also a great lover of cats and favored the Abyssinians.
“Laura and I remember her speaking fondly of Fiona and Fleur, who had quite distinct personalities,” Ms Rothkopf and Ms Albans said. “The house was never without an Abby or a stray who discovered she was a sweet cat lover. Sona had always hoped to organize an exhibition of the cat in art.
Doreen Bolger said: “Sona had a long career and achieved so much at a time when there wasn’t much room for women.”
She is survived by her husband of 56 years, William R. Johnston of Baltimore; his son, Frederic Nazar Johnston of Columbia; and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on May 2 at Roland Park Place.