Commentary: The Butler Was First

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In this column, I will take a few paragraphs to discuss a true passion of mine, which is our great museum, The Butler Institute of American Art.

In 1919, Joseph G. Butler Jr. decided that American art was just as significant as any emanating from Europe.

That’s right, Mr. Butler gave America its very first museum of American art. It was a first and the beginning of an extensive line of firsts, including the first building specifically built to house a museum of American art.

Another first was attaching five beautiful additions to that original building including the newly created Bacon Wing. And before that, The Butler was given a remarkable collection of technological art from a California collector, David Bermant. It was the first museum to add a wing dedicated exclusively to art based on new media from holograms and video to mechanical and computer-based works.

From a modest collection of 33 landscapes from Mr. Butler’s personal collection, The Butler has grown to over 22,000 works of art. Included in that growth are works by such artists as Pollock, Homer, De Kooning, Warhol, Rockwell and a who’s who of American painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers and videographers.

We often hear that The Butler’s art collection contains many masterpieces. So, what is meant by the term? A masterpiece is a unique work of art that ranks among the absolute best works an artist creates.

An example of an American art masterpiece is Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip,” which is in The Butler collection. It is the most admired of Homer’s works and critical acclaim reveals that it is creative, skillfully painted, and is the most reproduced of all of Homer’s work, included in numerous educational videos, cards, games and any material where art is re-created.

The blessing is that The Butler’s number of true masterpieces falls well into the dozens. And it is the number of masterpieces in this collection that ultimately establishes The Butler’s reputation as the home of masterpieces by America’s greatest painters and sculptors.

Given what is known and admired about The Butler’s collection and the advancements to its facility, it is no wonder that The Butler is so often termed “America’s Museum.”

This speaks to the number of scholars who extensively use the collection in their research. It is interesting to note that so many of America’s best-known personalities have visited and admired the Butler Institute, from the former head of the Metropolitan Museum, Tom Hoving, to the painter and entertainer, Tony Bennett.

American art scholars who have used the Butler collection include Dr. Barbara Novak, Dr. William Gerdts, Dr. David Shirey, professor Donald Holden (a Whistler scholar) and the Americanist of the Whitney Museum, Dr. Barbara Haskell.

So many other American artists have been inspired by The Butler, as well. Many stories are told of painters and sculptors who hosted their first major solo exhibits in The Butler galleries, such as optical painters Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz. Hundreds of artists have received their starts at The Butler. Many among them are prominent, honored visual artists.

Educational programs fill the calendar that include art classes, hundreds of tours of the collection and traveling exhibitions. The Butler boasts one of the most active docent programs in America. It has been praised far and wide as have its galleries that in themselves give visitors a rigorous history of America through its art.

In recent years, The Butler has hosted “Music at Noon” where the Dana School of Music of Youngstown State University performs a free weekly concert for the community.

And what would Christmas in Youngstown be without it? Every year, artisans from throughout the region come to The Butler for a culturally rich weekend sale.

On various Sunday afternoons throughout the year, a Butler director’s lecture focuses upon current exhibitions or additions to the permanent collection. The popular lecture series augments what the education department presents.

An important first for The Butler is a recently added video monitoring system that is a voice activated security system. Created by a Cleveland company, “Sentry” was designed specifically for The Butler. It is an advanced electronic surveillance system.

The Butler’s system has inspired similar systems at larger museums around the country, including the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Boston Museum of Art. The system is ultrasensitive and can detect the slightest danger to the art that it protects.

Why this security monitoring system is so important can be understood by an episode that occurred in a southwestern museum involving a young boy who apparently stuck a wad of bubble gum to a Minimalist canvas. The art restorers were unable to remove the gum. The weave of the canvas presented a challenge to the scientists, who believed that it will take future technology to remove the gum.

The Butler also has in place an extensive fire detection system that can detect water in the lower levels of the museum. Water can be as damaging as fire. Therefore, an extremely sensitive detection system is in place to alert staff of potential problems.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.