The Butler: Curator of treasured Youngstown museum talks history, 100 year anniversary

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"Walking throughout the Butler gallery is like walking through the history of America," said Lou Zona.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – By 1919, Youngstown had solidified itself as one of the world’s leading producers of steel, and one of the men who made a fortune decided to spend some of his money on America’s first museum dedicated solely to American art.

What we now know as the Butler Institute of American Art turns 100 this year. Tonight, we go inside the Butler and look at it through the eyes of the man who has been the face of the Butler for nearly four decades.

An Indian statue greets visitors outside the Butler Institute of American Art on Youngstown’s Wick Avenue, while inside, it’s a portrait of Joseph G. Butler — it was his idea to build it.

“He was one of the first serious collectors of American art. While his contemporaries were going to Europe and buying Renoirs and Monets, he was buying Sargent and Chase and Winslow Homer,” said Lou Zona.

Zona has run the Butler for 38 years. He has story upon story, like when he found pieces of poppies from In Flanders Field Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow on the floor and how it took a year to repair it.

Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip is the Butler’s most famous and most valuable painting. Joseph Butler played the game with future President William McKinley as kids.

“So when Mr. Butler created the Butler Institute, he said to a friend, ‘There’s only one painting missing. I have to have Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer,'” Zona said.

Some of Zona’s favorite pieces inside the museum are Norman Rockwell’s Lincoln the Railsplitter, Did You Speak To Me by William Merritt Chase and Fitz Henry Lane’s Ship Starlight.

When it comes to the Butler’s position in the art world, Zona does not mince words.

“Any museum doing an exhibit of American art, anywhere in the world, is going to call the Butler,” he said.

Zona is a big baseball fan, and a favorite baseball piece at the Butler is Clyde Singer’s painting of the Youngstown Gremlins at the old Idora Park Field.

Another Youngstown painting is Alfred Leslie’s Americans, Youngstown. One of the men in the middle is a young Zona.

“The nature of art is very different from when Mr. Butler was putting his collection together,” Zona said.

Zona is 75 and has played a major part in the development of the Butler’s first 100 years. He’s confident there will be 100 more.

“One can only imagine what lies ahead in the way of presentation of what is current in American art, but let’s hope it’ll bend with the times,” he said.

As part of the Butler’s 100th-anniversary celebration, the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra will be holding a concert Saturday evening at the Butler called Impressions of the Butler.

The concert starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and as of about 5 p.m. Friday, there were only about 40 tickets left, just call 234-228-8555.

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