Butler director reflects on 100-year-old museum




The Butler Institute of American Art has been around for 100 years, and Louis A. Zona has been in its driver’s seat for almost the last 40.

Zona took over as director of the museum in 1981, and has overseen a lot of growth in both the campus and the collection.

The museum has been marking its centennial this year with special exhibitions, performances and lectures, and a black-tie gala celebration will take place in October.

In a recent interview, Zona recalled his lifetime in art and his work at the Butler.

It all began when he was young.

“My brother, Jerry, was a commercial artist,” he said. “So growing up, my bedroom doubled as his art studio. I grew up with original art hanging on the walls.

“My father wanted me to be a teacher, because he said that during the Depression, the only ones who had jobs were teachers. So I became an art teacher.”

Zona attended what was then known as Youngstown College, and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate from Carnegie Tech.

He continues to teach art history at Youngstown State University, where he has been an instructor since 1973.

Zona’s first foray into museum work began while he was studying for his doctorate degree.

“My dissertation was a textbook on the operation of art museums,” he said. “To this day, I regret not paying attention to my adviser and getting it published. It would been the first book on running an art museum.”

Zona talked to then-Butler chief Joseph G. Butler, who was the grandson of the founder, about using the museum as a model for his dissertation.

“He was delighted,” said Zona. “We became friends [during the dissertation effort] and he asked me to stay on when I was done to assist him. Six months later he passed away. Because the directors knew of how he felt about me, they asked me to take over.”

Zona knew the Butler was a treasure when he became its director, but also recognized that there was work to be done.

“There was always this wonderful collection from the founder and his grandson, Joe, who had no art education but a wonderful eye. He chose some really nice things for the collection,” he said.

Zona immediately set about acquiring artworks to fill in the gaps in the collection. He also began to tackle the urgent need for physical improvements.

“There was no air conditioning back then,” he said. “No restrooms to speak of, no loading dock and no classrooms. We worked real hard with some good people in our community to make these things happen.”

Today, the Butler’s physical plant is fully modernized for its patrons and staff. It has also installed special lighting and other environmental controls to protect the art.

Under Zona, the museum added a wing for modern art installations with a lecture hall, and most recently acquired an adjacent former church building, which it uses for exhibits and as a performance space.

The Butler is dedicated to American art, and its collection in the field is authoritative.

It would be much more well-known if it were in New York or Chicago, said Zona.

One job for any art museum is to preserve delicate works that can be well over a century old, and to restore pieces that are damaged.

When Zona took over, that need was acute.

“Everything that humans create eventually turns to dust and the role of museums is to prevent that from happening,” said Zona.

“[Years ago], air conditioning meant opening the door, and the sulfur dioxide from the steel mills would come in and settle on the paintings,” he said. “There was a lot of damage done by lack of environmental controls.”

Efforts to reverse the damage has been ongoing, and the collection is now largely restored.

“We have spent a lot of energy and a lot of money doing that,” said Zona. “We’re in pretty decent shape now.”