Marilyn Stokstad, ‘trailblazing’ distinguished professor emerita of art history, dies at 87

KU distinguished professor emerita of art history Marilyn Stokstad, pictured in her Lawrence home in this 2014 Journal-World photo, died Friday, March 4, 2016, at 87.

Charles Eldredge remembers the moment his life changed forever. It was 1969, and Eldredge, then a doctoral student in art history at the University of Minnesota, was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Marilyn Stokstad, who was then a professor of art history, department chair and director of the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University.

“I couldn’t tell you what the subject matter was — it was the delivery, it was the charisma,” Eldredge recalled decades later. By the end of Stokstad’s “sparkling” lecture, Eldredge, now KU’s Hall Distinguished Professor of American Art and Culture, had already decided, “I want to be on her team.”

A year later, he was teaching alongside her and working as a curator at her beloved Spencer Museum. The two were teammates of sorts for more than 40 years, until Stokstad’s death last week.

KU distinguished professor emerita of art history Marilyn Stokstad, pictured in her Lawrence home in this 2014 Journal-World photo, died Friday, March 4, 2016, at 87.

Stokstad, who taught at KU from 1958 until her retirement as the Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor of Art History in 2002, remained involved with the university well into her twilight years, which ended quietly last Friday in her Lawrence residence. She was 87.

“Marilyn Stokstad leaves legions of scholars and friends who have been influenced and inspired by her life as an art historian, museum director and dynamic professor,” Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer Museum, said in a statement. “We have lost a dear friend and distinguished colleague. Marilyn was a powerful woman with legendary commitment to art and education.”

The Michigan native adopted many roles at KU over the years, but throughout it all, she was a “trailblazer,” Reece Hardy said, carving out a successful career in what was then a male-dominated field.

An outspoken feminist, Stokstad was a member of the February Sisters, a group of 20 women who peacefully occupied KU’s East Asian Studies building one February day in 1972.

Their protest of gender inequality at the university led to the establishment of both the Hilltop Day Care Center and the KU Women’s Studies Program, as well as Stokstad’s appointment as the first female associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (now the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) in 1972.

It was one of the many “firsts” in Stokstad’s career, remembers Eldredge, who cites Stokstad’s bestselling textbook “Art History” as one of her proudest accomplishments.

First published in 1995, “Art History” arrived at a time when few, if any, major art-history textbooks included the work of female artists. Now one of the most widely used textbooks of its kind in classrooms across the world, Stokstad’s groundbreaking work helped shape a more comprehensive scholarship of art history, academics note — one that acknowledged and celebrated the women, people of color and non-Western artists often overlooked in traditional textbooks.

Not one to shy away from hard work, Stokstad kept busy in her final years lecturing, writing and indulging her “sense of adventure,” as Reece Hardy described it, in globetrotting trips with her sister, Karen, and niece, Anna.

She also gave generously, donating $250,000 to the university’s Spencer Research Library in 2011 for renovations and, a year later, establishing the Marilyn Stokstad Directorship at the Spencer Museum.

“The gift of endowing the directorship of the museum is something that will live on at the museum forever,” Reece Hardy said.

Stokstad still maintained an office at the museum at age 87.

She had a gift for developing and maintaining friendships, often chatting up the janitor or the campus police officer (Stokstad would know them by first name, Eldredge noted) or the many students she still kept in touch with decades after graduation.

“It’s amazing to see students of hers from 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago vividly recall aspects of her personality and of her teaching. She was an inspiration,” Eldredge said.

Memorial contributions may be made in Stokstad’s name to the KU Endowment Association for the Spencer Research Library or the Spencer Museum of Art, and may be sent in care of Warren-McElwain Mortuary.