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Obituaries

Sona Karakashian Johnston, retired Baltimore Museum of Art senior curator, dies

Sona Karakashian Johnston was a leading expert on Theodore Robinson after studying his diaries for decades.

Sona Karakashian Johnston, a retired Baltimore Museum of Art senior curator of painting and sculpture who served the institution for 40 years, died of dementia March 20 at Roland Park Place. She was 83.

“Sona made Baltimore her focus and she was able to establish it and its collections as being significant,” said Doreen Bolger, former BMA director. ”She joined with others to establish Baltimore as a leading center of art and culture, one of it most important assets.”

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“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 homebuilder, and his wife, Menoush Nazaretian, a homemaker. They were Armenian refugees.

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She was a 1958 Newton High School graduate and earned a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College. She earned a bachelor’s degree in painting and art history.

In 1961, she entered New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where she studied, served as its slide librarian and met her future husband, William R. Johnston. He was later a Walters Art Museum curator. They married in 1967.

She was soon hired as a Boston Museum of Fine Arts lecturer and helped to 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 an assistant curator at the Peale Museum on Holliday Street near City Hall.

Martha Sanger and Sona Karakashian Johnston attend a reception for Washington College's new president.

She joined the staff at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1970. She was initially an assistant curator and rose to become the senior curator of painting and sculpture. She retired in 2010.

Tom Freudenheim, a former BMA director, said: “We had known each other from graduate school and Sona was a serious and knowledgeable art scholar and curator. She was elegant and had a grace about her. In the museum world, when there can be chaos, she floated above it all.”

“Sona was a genius,” said Stiles T. Colwill, former Baltimore Museum of Art board chair. “She also had a great voice, and when she spoke, everyone stopped to hear what she had to say and to listen to 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 found he was a close friend of Claude Monet.

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Mrs. Johnston was recalled as a meticulous, exacting and impassioned Robinson scholar.

“Sona is a remarkable treasure for us,” said a 2004 Sun quotation from BMA curator Jay Fisher. “She’s an object-centered 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 are,” her husband said in the 2004 article. “She likes works that require looking at, studying and thinking about.”

“Sona’s not comfortable with a lot of drama,” Mr. Fisher said in 2004. “Her choices are more refined and well orchestrated. She’s not the kind of curator who will want a wild flurry of wall color in the galleries.”

Said Doreen Bolger, the former BMA director: “We met in the 1970s when she was studying Robinson’s works and I was working on the impressionist J. Alden Weir. She stepped forward and offered help. It was an example of the ways her reach extended beyond the city.”

Sona Karakashian Johnston, curator for the exhibit In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny, discusses restoration work for the painting Watching the Cows (c. 1888) with Lauren Bass, a conservation technician, in 2004.

She organized the BMA show In Monet’s Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny.

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“Her expertise and interests were broad and far-reaching, as she organized numerous exhibitions of American and French art,” BMA curators Katy Rothkopf and Laura Albans said in a museum statement.

Mrs. Johnston also wrote and produced museum catalogs, including 1989′s Benjamin West: American Painter at the English Court and the 1983 work American Masterpieces from the Peabody Art Collection.

She also wrote American Paintings 1750-1900 from the Collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the traveling exhibition and catalog Faces of Impressionism.

Mrs. Johnston, with her husband, William Johnston, co-curated The Triumph of French Painting, which explored 19th century and early 20th century French art in the collections of the BMA and Walters Art Museum. The show traveled extensively and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.

She organized the 2003 reinstallation of the BMA’s collection of 15th century through 19th century European art in the Jacobs Wing.

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“Throughout her fruitful career, she curated numerous small and large installations and exhibitions for the Museum,” the BMA statement said.

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“She played an instrumental role in securing the George A. Lucas Collection for the BMA’s permanent holdings, and always treasured its importance,” Ms. Rothkopf and Ms. Albans said. “She made many important acquisitions for the Museum for both the European and American collections, as she was the curator for many years responsible for the Jacobs Wing and the American painting and sculpture collection, along with the Antioch mosaics. It was an amazing feat.”

Friends said she was proud of her Armenian heritage and often spoke of her parents who were Armenian refugees. She was also an avid lover of cats and favored Abyssinians.

“Both Laura and I remember her speaking fondly of Fiona and Fleur, who had quite the distinctive personalities,” Ms. Rothkopf and Ms. Albans said. “The house was never without an Abby or a stray that discovered she was a cat-loving softy. Sona had always hoped to curate a show of the cat in art.”

Doreen Bolger said, “Sona had a long career and she accomplished so much at a time when there was not a lot of space for women.”

She is survived by her husband of 56 years, William R. Johnston of Baltimore; her son, Frederic Nazar Johnston of Columbia; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. May 2 at Roland Park Place.


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