Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Butler Institute of American Art

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Lorinda Dixon [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The Butler is 100 years old this year! In 1919, the Butler Institute of American Art was dedicated, named after industrialist, author and philanthropist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., who contributed the funds to establish the museum. The original museum building, designed by architects McKim, Mead, and White, is an architectural gem and on the National Register of Historic Places.

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.

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Robert Vonnoh, “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow” [Public Domain] via Wikimedia

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!

13 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Butler Institute of American Art

  1. Bob-
    When returning to Youngstown for a visit it entails family and friends. Next visit will include a trip to Butler. My father loved reading and going to Butler. Thank you for this reminder! Happy New Year!

  2. Absolutely loved going there over the years. Once again, Bob, thank you for a wonderful enlightening historical article !

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. As a Wick,Tod and Stambaugh our family was involved with “The ‘Butler”as we always called it from the start -My sister Heidi Elsaesser had 2 one man shows there at age 12 and early 20’s-some of the Butler’s first modern art-one of which is still in their permanent collection-Thank God and generous patrons that have kept Butler,the Warner and Stambaugh Auditorium while so much of classic Youngstown has faded.
    By the way ,Bob and fellow Valley natives-check out Mad Men as there is quite a bit of Raymond Loewey GF furniture on the sets all made right on Logan ave…..Thanks for these great weekly memories.Ford Elsaesser

    • It is striking the continuing impact these leaders from 100 years ago continue to have on Youngstown. Wonder whether any current leaders will have that kind of impact a hundred years from now. Thanks for the heads up on GF Furniture. We have two of their desks and a filing cabinet made by GF. Fifty years old and indestructible!

      • Likewise I found a 7 foot loewy that was originally in the GF executive offices which is now my office desk. I bought it from a Hollywood set supplier who supplied Mad Men and the movie Public Enemies. Best office furniture ever made. Most folks don’t appreciate the Loewey connection-he also designed the Zippo lighter,streamlined trains etc

  4. Bob
    Thanks for the informative post. I love the Butler and studied and relaxed there as a YSU student. I have attended weddings and beautiful craft shows when in town.
    Great memories
    Michelle H. White

  5. Bob, excellent report on The Butler. I had no idea the original building was a McKim-Mead-White project. I love art and stories behind the works. The information on the GF Furniture from reader Elsaesser was an added bonus! I can close my laptop tonight a little more enlightened than when I opened it!

  6. Bob, you have a real knack for tweaking so many almost forgotten little memories of growing up in Youngstown.

    When I was in the 1st grade at St. Brendan’s, a finger painting I did was selected for display at the Butler Art Institute as part of our school’s contribution to a children’s art exhibition. My mother kept it for decades and gave it to me just before she passed. That was the high point of my artistic career.

    GF furniture is also prominent in the film All the President’s Men. The actual newsroom at the Washington Post used a sea of GF’s Davis Allen collection desks. The film company placed a huge order with GF to replicate the newsroom for the Redford/Hoffman feature. I worked for GF in customer service In Youngstown and in sales at the Newark, NJ branch office (’73-’76).
    I have a still very usable GF Superfiler (unique, patented drop-front) in my garage that my uncle used in his business before I got it. It has to be from the 1950’s and still functional.

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