Joseph G. Butler, Jr. had a vision for transforming art in America. At a time when institutions and collectors were focused on European art, he began collecting pieces of artwork by American artists and, in 1917, decided to construct a museum to make his collection public. An Ohio native, Butler realized his vision in a place not often mentioned in the art world: his home, Youngstown, Ohio.
When Butler dedicated the museum in 1919 — the first dedicated solely to American art — he stood on the steps and declared that someday America would be known not only for its industry, but also for the quality of its art. The Butler Institute of American Art is now considered “the gem” of Youngstown, an Italianate-style marble structure sitting in the middle of a small city known best for the decline of its steel industry.
“[The Butler] has been a valued institution, held close to the hearts of the people of Youngstown,” Wendy Swick, the Butler’s director of public relations, said. “We’re not a big town. We don’t have a reputation for exciting things…so actually having the museum right here in the middle of Youngstown sometimes is a contrast to that Youngstown grit.”
But the Youngstown of Butler’s time was seen as a rising location perfect for an American art scene to thrive.
“At the time, Youngstown was a hub of the steel industry,” Swick said. “The future of it at the time was perceived to be up and coming like New York City. It wasn’t supposed to stay a small town.”
The fortune that enabled Butler to start his art museum came, in part, from that steel industry. Butler spearheaded the industry in Youngstown, and was heavily involved in the transition of the from iron to steel production Mahoning Valley. He founded the Ohio Steel Company and invested in Youngstown Sheet & Tube, a steel manufacturer, which would eventually employ thousands of people in Youngstown.
As the steel industry has since disappeared from Youngstown, the art institute is arguably Butler’s most evident and most important legacy. Butler created the institution with the vision of producing a space devoted to “curating and preserving” the art of early America.
“[Butler] believed in American art. He believed that…someday we would have great artists and just as great an artistic tradition as exists in Europe,” Dr. Louis Zona, the executive director of the Institute, said. “But the reality is that also by the time he was collecting art seriously, so many of the great [European] paintings had been acquired. And so it made sense to him to narrowly focus on American production.”
At its opening, the Institute housed a mere 34 pieces of artwork. Its earliest dated artwork is the “Portrait of Katherine Ten Broeck” by Nehemiah Partridge, created in 1719. Nowadays, the art museum sees more than 100,000 visitors per year and houses more than 22,000 individual works.
The early art of America was greatly inspired by the European art traditions, but Butler wanted to capture the moments when American artists began to define their own art movements.
“Eventually, American artists began to realize that there’s something very unique about living here and painting here,” Zona said. “For example, at a time when Rembrandt was painting his masterpieces, American art was pretty primitive. The artists who were inspired by portraits became the big thing. And eventually, America became known for its portrait artists, like Gilbert Stewart and the rest. And then eventually the American wilderness would inspire the artists.”
The works at the Butler showcase American innovation across eras and styles. Zona pointed to American impressionism as an example of American artists departing from the European trends to create their own style. Hanging on the walls of the Butler is one of the most treasured examples of American impressionist art: “In Flanders Field Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow” by Robert Vonnoh.
“There is a much greater solidity in the American brand of impressionism,” Zona said. “When you look at a Monet, you see little little blobs, which eventually when you stand back far enough, you’re getting the impression of the subject, whereas in America, you had these great storytellers wanting to create paintings that were solid, that are less about light and more about the subject.”
Today, the museum attracts visitors from across the country, some of whom specifically travel to see a certain piece of artwork found only at the Butler.
One of those draws is the heart of the collection, a piece by Winslow Homer, “Snap the Whip.” He viewed the piece for the first time when visiting the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and was immediately impressed. The artwork details a group of children playing in a field in front of a small red house and came with a $1,000 price tag, which Butler felt was too expensive at the time. Unable to forget the piece, he was finally able to purchase it as his own in 1917 for $5,000 (over $100,000 today).
An idyllic scene of a rural upbringing, the piece also drew on Butler’s nostalgia for a particular part of his childhood: his friendship with President William McKinley. The two attended school together in Niles, Ohio and would stay close until President McKinley’s assassination in 1901.
After McKinley’s death, Butler led the construction of the memorial for his friend. The McKinley National Birthplace Memorial was built in downtown Niles, OH in 1917 on the grounds of McKinley and Butler’s childhood school. The town of Niles remembered Butler’s dedication to his friend and community, and declared October 23, 1920 as “Butler Day.” The celebration included a parade and the unveiling of a bust of Butler.
A thriving political insider, Butler was friendly with numerous presidents. He used his political connections to write biographies and historical novels, including a memoir of President William McKinley and the “History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.” His work can still be accessed digitally.
Butler was as much of a civic leader as he was a businessman. He led fundraisers to raise money for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Youngstown and donated funds to support the Reuben McMillan Public Library. True to his philanthropist nature, Butler demanded that his art institute be free to all visitors. An inscription above the museum’s front door reads “pro bono publico”— for the public good. It continues to be free to all visitors today.
Even after Butler’s death in 1927, the Institute has continued Butler’s dedication to both advancing American artists and providing education to all who pass through its doors. Many of the visitors to the museum are school children. The museum’s mission is to help underserved school systems, especially local ones, educate children on American Art. This has meant evolving the museum’s holdings as art by American artists continues to diversify.
“As America changes, we want to keep collecting art that represents all those changes in how America grows,” Swick said. “We may veer in a different direction from the historical and what is considered ‘Fine Art’ sometimes because our focus is to welcome all people, inspire people of all walks of life and provide cultural enrichment to everyone.”
In the 21st century, the Institute has continued to expand its art collection and physical space. In 2000, Youngstown State University and the Butler Institute collaborated to build the Beecher Center, an addition dedicated to electronic and digital art. The 33,000 square foot Beecher Center was one of the first types of institutions devoted to that style of art and design.
In 2005, the Butler Institute bought the historic First Christian Church, which was located next to the museum, with the intention to use the space for education classes. Almost a decade later, a glass bridge was built to connect the Butler Institute to the First Christian Church. The bridge allowed for the two buildings to be more easily accessed and permitted new Americana exhibitions to be featured in the Institute.
“We like to try to have something for everybody,” Swick said. “We have our permanent collection, but we also have dynamic exhibitions, ever-changing exhibitions, and some of our artwork travels all over the world. So pieces from the Butler — and that brings recognition to Youngstown as well — pieces from here travel all over the world to be part of exhibitions elsewhere.”
Each year, the Butler Institute holds a midyear exhibit to showcase artists’ work from across the fifty states and territories of the U.S. This summer, the Institute will hold its 86th National Midyear Show, highlighting works in various mediums such as oil, watercolor, pastel, photographs and prints. The Institute also holds a juried area artist event each year. It features artists across all mediums but focuses on those located in the Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties in Ohio and the Mercer and Lawrence counties located in Pennsylvania.
A transformation from one man’s private collection to one of the foremost public institutions of art in the country, the Butler Institute is embracing its role as “America’s Museum,” not only through its continental artistic style, but also by facing the struggles and reconciliations of America today. The institution’s founding principles — among them, remaining free to the public and housing a collection representative of the communities surrounding it — celebrate America’s essence, morphing and evolving through time and space but held together through democratic ideals.
It may not be situated in the glamor of NYC or the palm trees of LA, but perhaps that’s the point — what better place than Youngstown to realize the power of art in uplifting America’s modern plight in the postindustrial landscape? Out of a struggling city, there is yet idealism, beauty and belief arising from life and resilience.