The Growth of the Butler Institute of American Art

The Butler Institute of American Art celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2019. Photo by Kameron Meyers/The Jambar

By Tina Kalenits
Jambar Contributor

As America has grown, the Butler Institute of American Art has grown with it, making it a place for art pieces of American culture to be displayed at Youngstown State University.

Louis Zona, executive director of the Butler Institute of American Art, said its founder, Joseph G. Butler Jr., would be pleased to see how much the museum has grown. 

“He was a steel man who made his fortune in the steel industry and was one of the first serious collectors of American art. While his contemporaries were going to Europe and buying impressionists’ work, he was here in America buying American art,” Zona said.

Since 1919, the museum collection has grown from 30 art pieces to more than 22,000.

A woman pictured above (left) observing a piece of artwork at the institute. Photo by Frances Clause/The Jambar

“What we try to do with our permanent collection is we try to represent every philosophy and every art movement going back to the very beginnings of American art,” Zona said.

Joseph “Josh” Butler, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, said his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were heavily involved in collecting American art.

Some from these collections are paintings from the Ashcan School, a group of painters focusing on realistic art. 

“When my great-grandfather opened the museum in 1919, he stipulated it would be American art,” Butler said. “The Ashcan School was a distinctly American school, so it fit in perfectly with the collection.”

According to Butler, his great-grandfather’s house bruned down in 1917.

“All of his art collection in the house was lost, but a couple of parts of the collection, including the American Indian collection, were out of the house at the time, and so were not lost to the fire,” Butler said. 

Henry Butler, Josh Butler’s father, contributed to the collection now owned by the museum.

“My father was also responsible for Albert Bierstadt’s painting ‘The Oregon Trail,’ which was a 19th-century painting,” Josh Butler said. “When he bought the painting, he used his own money.”

Joseph G. Butler Jr. died in 1927 at 87.

“He loved things American; he was one of the early people who wasn’t on the train of everything European is better,” Butler said.  

The Butler Institute of American Art celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2019. Photo by Kameron Meyers/The Jambar

He said several of his family members were involved in the museum’s operations over the years. Zona, an adjunct art instructor at YSU, has been its director since 1981.

Alan Heck, a recent visitor to the museum, said he enjoys it and is surprised that a small town would have such a wide collection.

“They have several examples. ‘Hudson River School,’ which I am a fan of,” Heck said. “I personally was a science major, and being able to go to gallery spaces and see what the other side of the brain works with was really wonderful and expanded my vision of what we needed to do in the world.”