Butler always felt that American artists had been overshadowed by those from Europe. As an art lover, he assembled a significant collection at his Wick Avenue home, that he intended would form the beginning of the collection of the museum he envisioned. Much of this was lost in a fire in 1917, but by then, plans for the museum were already underway. In 1919, Butler helped dedicate the first museum in the country devoted to American art.
One of the conditions that Butler set when he established the museum is that it would operate on a pro bono basis, on which it has operated to this day. This sets it apart from many museums (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo museums are also free, except for special shows). The Columbus Museum of Art, where I live is free only for members and young children. Adults under 60 pay $14, students and seniors $8 (Sundays are free for all, however). When Butler died in 1927, most of his estate of $1.5 million was bequeathed to the museum, and fittingly, his memorial service was held at the museum.
I first visited the museum as a child, enjoying the collection of Remington works depicting Native Americans and western life. Later, as a college student at adjacent Youngstown State, I loved going over to the museum on class breaks. I discovered that there was such a thing as a “Hudson River School” due to the museum’s collection of these paintings. I’d seen prints of “Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer on the walls of Washington Elementary. At the Butler, I could sit and study the original. But my favorite, then and now, is Robert Vonnoh “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow.” I grew up in the Vietnam war era, and the painting symbolized to me both the futility of war and the longing that peace and flourishing would prevail.We’ve visited the museum several times since and witnessed its growth including the new south wing, The Beecher Center. There is also a new Andrews Pavilion with a gift shop, cafe’, and sculpture atrium. In 2006, the museum also acquired the adjacent property formerly belonging to the First Christian Church, using it as an education and performing arts space. The museum collection now exceeds 20,000 works, which now include works in new digital and holographic media. One of the museum’s major acquisitions in 2007 was Norman Rockwell’s, Lincoln The Railsplitter, previously owned by Ross Perot. They also operate a satellite museum in Trumbull County with its own schedule of shows.
Concurrent with its one hundredth birthday, the Butler is hosting a show titled “100 Years of Printmaking II” that surveys printmaking in America over the last 100 years. The museum offers ongoing educational programs for parents with young children, youth and seniors. Dr. Louis Zona, executive director and chief curator of the museum, offers periodic Sunday afternoon lectures, the current schedule of which may be found on the museum website.
The Butler Institute of American Art is not only a Youngstown treasure. It is an American treasure, displaying the creativity of American artists from every period of our history. Happy one hundredth birthday, and may you see many more!