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Medici Foundation Split from Butler Almost Complete

HOWLAND, Ohio – The divorce between Foundation Medici and The Butler Institute of American Art is in the divvying up of property phase, and the building at the center of the dispute will soon have a new name and possibly a collection of Norman Rockwell paintings to display.

As of Dec. 6, Foundation Medici’s contract with The Butler to operate its building on West Market Street in Howland will be terminated, the result of a disagreement over the Rockwells and other issues.

The Youngstown-based Butler Institute has run the building, which was known as The Butler Trumbull Branch, since it opened in 1995.

The building is closed now, but is slated to reopen in January as the Medici Museum of Art, according to John Anderson, director of the foundation.

The final Butler exhibition at the site – the Area Artists Annual – closed Nov. 27 and the art has been returned to its creators. The Butler began removing its property, including paintings and sculptures, over the weekend and will have the task completed by Dec. 6.

The split-up has spawned a new dispute over ownership of one piece of art.

The Butler and the foundation are at odds over who owns the massive ceramic-tile mural by French artist Pierre Soulages. The dispute over the 20-foot piece – the most valuable work at the museum branch – will be settled by the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.

The first step in settling the issue is to determine its monetary value.

“We don’t know what it is but we’re in the process of coming up with its value,” said Louis A. Zona, executive director of The Butler. “It needs to be appraised. It’s a unique piece of art and because of that, there are no sales records.”

Zona said it would be easier to determine its value if it were a painting, as many Soulages paintings have changed hands over the years, but the mural has no record of sales.

“It is unique and that is one reason why we worked so hard to get it,” said Zona. 

“The previous owner donated it to The Butler after many years of conversation about it,” said Zona. “The Butler is proud to own such a unique work. It inspires not only ceramic artists and painters but it also ties beautifully into the abstract collection owned by The Butler.”

The contentious relationship between the Foundation Medici and The Butler came to a head in the past year over a plan to display 66 paintings by the late Rockwell, valued at $100 million and owned by the Boy Scouts of America.

Rockwell’s stature as a great American artist has grown tremendously in recent decades, as has the value of his works. He created the BSA paintings for scouting literature mainly in the mid-20th century.

The Butler shied away from the plan to display the paintings mainly out of fear that the BSA would later sell the collection to pay its legal fees. The scouting organization, which was to retain ownership of the Rockwells under the proposal to The Butler, is facing numerous high-profile sexual-abuse lawsuits.

The Butler would have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to transfer the paintings to Texas from Youngstown, and also was leery of negative publicity in connection with the lawsuits.

Foundation Medici, which owns the Trumbull Branch building, vigorously opposed The Butler’s decision to put the plan on hold and in June triggered a six-month notice to terminate its contract with the museum.

It also began negotiating on its own with BSA to display the Rockwells. Foundation chief Anderson said this week that an agreement with BSA is “a gnat’s eyelash away from consummation,” and could happen this month. Under the deal, the scouting organization would retain ownership of the paintings and allow the Medici Museum of Art to display them.

The foundation, said Anderson, is fully aware of BSA’s legal problems and the possible repercussions of them.

“This deal is being done with eyes wide open and in full recognition of any events that might come to pass,” he said. “We’re fully aware of the situation [with BSA] and are not fleeing from it or are intimidated by it.”

Anderson said that what has been lost in the dispute with The Butler board is the value of the art and its potential as a catalyst for tourism.

“Many people are looking forward to the opportunity to see this collection,” said Anderson.

In response, The Butler’s Zona said he has respect for the Boy Scouts, but noted that the BSA also pulled back from its initial proposal.

“Norman Rockwell is one of America’s great artists and we at The Butler are proud of the fact that we own his greatest painting,” said Zona, referring to his piece “Lincoln the Railsplitter.

While he stressed that The Butler has admiration for the good work of the BSA, he pointed out that “the Boy Scouts tabled any possible exhibition of their art at the same time that The Butler put on hold its exhibition.”
If the Medici museum is unable to reach a deal to display the Rockwells, a Plan B has been drawn up. Anderson did not give details on it but said he has been in contact with Trumbull Art Gallery.

“We’re not going to show blank walls,” Anderson said.

William Mullane, chairman of the board of TAG, did not respond to The Business Journal in time for this article.

Foundation Medici, said Anderson, is in the process of hiring a curator for its new museum. The foundation is also planning to build an addition that would include a vault for secured storage of art, additional work and classroom space, and another gallery, said Anderson. The new gallery will have wall space with increased width and height for displaying art.

Anderson said an improved gift shop is also part of the foundation’s plan for the Medici museum, adding that its board was displeased with the quality of the old one. 

Even before the Rockwell issue came up, Foundation Medici’s board was displeased with The Butler over the quality of the exhibitions it brought to the branch and its operation of the building, according to Anderson.

“They had complete jurisdiction [over the branch] and failed in their commitment to the board of Foundation Medici and the founders [of the museum],” says Anderson. “They breached the contract.”

He described the exhibitions that were put in as “recycled” and inferior.

Attendance was “atrocious,” said Anderson. He did not have exact numbers at his immediate disposal but said only a handful of people visited the museum on most days.

“[The poor attendance] was proof of the lack of interest in what [The Butler] did,” said Anderson.

Zona, responded that The Butler has presented well over 100 “outstanding” exhibitions in the history of the branch.

“Not only have we focused on many of the greatest of America’s painters and sculptors such as Chen Chi, Paul Jenkins and Robert Motherwell but also many celebrity artists as well such as John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett and Kim Novak, to name just a few,” said Zona. “These exhibitions brought in people from around the country.”

Zona said the branch’s calendar also included lectures, art demonstrations, and collaborations with public libraries, schools, civic organizations and cultural groups.

“I would compare the activities of The Butler Trumbull with museums much larger in scale,” said Zona. He noted CBS newsmagazine show “Sunday Morning” recently filmed a segment on the Novak exhibition.

“We were successful in bringing many major American artists to The Butler Trumbull,” he said.

Anderson characterized the Novak exhibition as “recycled” from an earlier one, and added that famous actors or musicians are not necessarily major artists.

Zona said that the late Max Draime, who donated the land and money to build the Howland museum and died in 2006, “was proud of the facility and the way we ran it. He thought so highly of its association with The Butler that he even mentioned giving it to The Butler.”

Stating that he is “heartbroken” by the termination of its contract with Foundation Medici, Zona pointed out that The Butler’s art education programs for school districts “will continue to be a force for good” in Trumbull County.

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Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.