For 100 years, the Butler Institute of American Art has been a source of local and national pride and a beacon of creative excellence.
The vision of the museum’s founder, Mahoning Valley industrialist Joseph G. Butler, to establish a venue devoted exclusively to American works of art has made the Butler unique in the cultural life of the nation and an icon in the art world.
It is no wonder that the institute, located on Wick Avenue in Youngstown with a branch in Howland, has consistently ranked high in national polling.
Last year, for instance, it was in the top tier with major and internationally renowned venues such as The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Louis Zona, longtime executive director of the Butler, offered this obvious explanation for why the privately operated, free-admission museum is held in such high regard:
“We obviously have a lot of friends.”
It is this level of friendship that has sustained the Butler for the past 100 years.
And, it is those friends who will remain true to the museum as it navigates the choppy waters of controversy created by a Norman Rockwell art collection.
HOW FLARE-UP STARTED
The genesis of the flare-up between some supporters of the Butler and members of the board of trustees has been widely publicized. It comes down to the decision by the trustees to delay plans to borrow a collection of works owned by the Boy Scouts of America, including 66 paintings by Rockwell.
The $113 million collection, including illustrations, would have been displayed in the Youngstown and Howland branches.
The collection is currently in a storage facility in Irving, Texas. It had been on display at a Boy Scouts museum in Texas, which is to be closed.
The price tag of thousands of dollars for bringing the Rockwell paintings and other pieces to the Valley would have been borne by the Butler. The BSA intended to loan the collection to the Butler for two years, after which negotiations for a new agreement could have occurred.
However, in January, the trustees revisited their decision of last year after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Boy Scouts of America is considering filing for bankruptcy partially due to costs from lawsuits over sex-abuse allegations.
The Butler board feared it could face a backlash from donors and the public over the connection to the BSA as its child-sex-abuse allegations were dealt with, as well as the time and cost of shipping the artwork back to the BSA if ordered to do so by a bankruptcy judge.
The decision by the board to put on hold the display and storage of the collection reflected the necessary caution a private institution must embrace.
Critics contend that board’s decision amounts to censorship.
We strongly reject that view and point to a statement from former board member and benefactor Jeffrey P. Draime, whose late father, David, was the reason the beautiful branch in Howland exists today.
David Draime donated the land and provided much of the money needed to build and operate the branch. He also created and largely endowed Foundation Medici to help facilitate the branch’s operation.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the unbelievable generosity of the Draime family has given Trumbull County the wonderful, welcoming Howland branch of the Butler.
Here’s what Jeffrey Draime said in a statement in Sunday’s Vindicator:
“We find the recent news articles ... and inflammatory language concerning the Butler and a collection of Norman Rockwell art very disheartening. Reasonable people can disagree about the Butler board’s decision to table the opportunity of acquiring the Rockwells, but the board had every right to decide.”
Later on in his statement, he specifically addressed the issue of censorship:
“My family strongly rejects the notion of censorship attributed to the Butler and considers it potentially damaging to an institution that has provided so much to our communities over the years.”
It’s one thing for individuals who are passionate about the arts in the Mahoning Valley to disagree with decisions made by those who serve on boards. It’s quite another to assign ulterior motives to those decision-makers.
Let us be clear: The Butler Institute of American Art is a private museum that is open to the public with no cost for admission. Its revenue comes from hundreds of regional donors, grants from foundations and government agencies, and sales from its gift shop and annual holiday craft and art show.
We cannot allow the controversy over the Rockwell paintings to diminish the value of this crown jewel of Mahoning Valley culture.