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!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joseph G. Butler, Jr.

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Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Author Unknown. Source: The Youngstown Telegram. Public Domain-US, via Wikipedia

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art on Friday. One of the reasons was to see the actual painting of “Morning Drive” by Christopher Leeper, about which I wrote in an earlier post, “The View From Home.” Leeper’s painting is the view of downtown and the Valley from the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland, where I lived. It is in an exhibit of the Ohio Watercolor Society until September 10, and captures the view that is in my mind’s eye when I think of looking down Mahoning Avenue toward town on a cold and clear winter morning.

The visit to this museum, which has been expanded in recent years, reminded me what a treasure Youngstown has at the Butler Institute of American Art, which easily goes toe to toe with the Columbus, in a far bigger city. For one thing, from its establishment, admission to the Butler has always been free, in comparison to what we paid for admission (even with AAA discount) plus the add-on fee for a special show plus parking. It reminded me of the gift Joseph G. Butler, Jr. gave to the city, and the wider art world in establishing this museum and generously funding it upon his death. And so it made me wonder a bit more about the man behind the museum.

I discovered he was a multi-faceted individual:

He was a pioneer steel-maker. Butler’s father and grandfather were iron manufacturers and blast furnace experts and Butler brought this to Youngstown and facilitated the transition to steel manufacturing. He joined Henry Wick in organizing the Ohio Steel Company, building two Bessemer plants along the Mahoning River, which later became the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U.S. Steel. His industrial leadership formed the core of his wealth and led to directorships on numerous boards including that of Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company.

He was a dedicated civic leader. He led the fund-raising drive that established St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Memorial for William McKinley, a classmate of his during his youth in Niles and friend. He also donated monies for libraries and a number of other community institutions.

He was a collector of American art. Butler realized that the works of American artists were overshadowed by those from Europe. He assembled a significant collection in his Wick Avenue home, much of which was lost in a 1917 fire. Plans had already been laid for the Butler, a museum to house his collection, which opened in 1919. When he died in 1927, most of his $1.5 million estate was bequeathed to the Butler.

I found two other interesting aspects to Butler as well.

He was a political insider. His prominence and wealth as a national leader in industry gave him access to most of the presidents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a staunch Republican, and his support was considered indispensable in any national campaign.

He was a historian. Amazingly, this busy man had the time to write a biography of McKinley, a memoir titled Presidents I Have Seen and Known, a history of steel-making, and a three volume History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which has been digitized and may be downloaded here. His other works are also in digital form and came up on this search result.

Thriving cities do so, I’m convinced, because they enjoy dedicated, competent, and honest leadership from three sectors: civic, political, and business. Butler represented all three and a number of the bright spots in the city from its hospitals to its libraries to the Butler are a consequence of his influence. His foresight in recognizing the dearth of talented American artists works being represented in museums led to establishing what is arguably the foremost museum of American art in the country. His careful historical writing provides a bedrock of historical information about his times, and our hometown. The impact of his philanthropy continues to make its mark in the Mahoning Valley nearly 100 years later.

While times have changed, communities will continue to need men and women who use the benefits of wealth, access, education, and leadership skills for the benefit of their communities. People like Joseph G. Butler, Jr. and Volney Rogers are worth the study of contemporary community leaders in Youngstown. Both invested nearly 50 years of their lives in Youngstown, around the same time. One gave us a world class museum. The other, a jewel along Mill Creek. Whose investment in the Valley will make a difference in the next century?