Shirley Z. Johnson was a scholarly collector, antitrust attorney and autism advocate.
Ms. Johnson's first Asian art collection consisted of imperial Chinese textiles about which she wrote an article in Arts of Asia, (1995). Some textiles have been given to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art (Freer/Sackler), others have been loaned to it and have been promised as a gift. An interest in Chinese textiles began in 1979 when she visited China and purchased four pieces: two from Chinese people seated on the ground among the stone animals leading to the Ming tombs and two rank badges from an antique store on Lui Li Chang street in Beijing.
Beginning in about 1992, she became interested in Japanese metal work, when she spotted a piece she liked of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) at Orientations Gallery in New York. Thereafter, she collected metal art of that era until 2006, when she began collecting work of living metal artists. She gave her collection of Meiji metal work to the Walters in 2019 (along with Japanese cloisonné and prints) and has promised her collection of contemporary metal art to the Freer|Sackler, along with extensive archives relating to each piece and interviews with about 100 metal artists beginning in 2006.
She served on the Board of The Textile Museum from 1989-2003 and on the Board of the Smithsonian's Freer|Sackler from 2004-2012 and from 2017 to 2021.
Ms. Johnson had published several articles on Asian art: "Tomobako: Functional Beauty," Impressions, 2020; "Japanese Metal Art: An Enduring Tradition," Arts of Asia, May-June 2017; "Chinese Ancestor Portraits in the Sackler's Collection," Arts of Asia, July-August 2003; "A Textile Collector's Approach to Collecting," Arts of Asia, July-August 1995.
Her legal specialty was antitrust law. She worked as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Antitrust Subcommittee, and entered private practice in 1976 until she retired in 2009.
She graduated from the University of Michigan law school in 1965 with a Juris Doctor degree and was a member of The Order of the Coif. Previously she received a bachelor's degree in Political Science, summa cum laude, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
In 2004 she founded a unique social skills program for children with autism at the West Burlington, Iowa School District involving classroom guidance, luncheon and after-school groups and a summer camp. Each activity involved both autistic and neurotypical children. The program was called the TRI Project, standing for Intense, Inclusive, Individual.