Youngstown, OH: Butler Institute of American Art

I might have taken a bit of a break from blogging over December (though you wouldn’t know it because I wrote so many posts in November, which went out in December), but I certainly didn’t take a break from visiting museums, since that is fortunately still more of a joy than a chore (even with working at a museum. I wouldn’t visit the museum I work at on my days off though!). I was back in the States as usual for Christmas, and actually managed to hit up a few new-to-me museums on this trip, which was great!

  

I had never actually been to Youngstown before this trip, but I did have some negative associations with it, thanks to my disgusting pervert former boss. I worked at an ice cream shop throughout high school and college, as I’ve mentioned before, and the owner was truly revolting and sexually harassed us pretty much every time he was there (fortunately, because Youngstown is over an hour away, he only came up once every couple of weeks, which is the only reason that job was bearable. Well, that, and the free ice cream), and it soured me on the whole city, especially because Youngstown (or rather Boardman, just outside Youngstown) is where Handel’s Ice Cream was started in the first place. So when my mother suggested checking out the Butler Institute of American Art there, I was initially apprehensive, but their website actually made it sound pretty good, so I acquiesced.
  
The museum is located right on YSU’s campus, and was easy both to find and access, with parking out front. On the day of my visit, they were evidently going to be hosting a wedding later in the day (and having seen the place, I would absolutely get married there. And have a buffet table full of dumplings, as the couple in question seemed to have been planning, judging by the signs on the tables), so the main hall of the museum was somewhat taken up by people setting up tables and the like, but there weren’t very many artworks in that section, so it didn’t overly affect my visit.
  
Admission is free, and there wasn’t even really an admissions desk. The only members of staff we saw on our visit were the ones setting up for the wedding, and a security guard by the back entrance, so I guess it wasn’t great if you’re the sort of person who has a lot of questions, but I am not that sort of person. The museum opened well enough, albeit not terribly excitingly, with some 18th century American landscape painters, but quickly got a bit creepy with these terrifying twins and disturbing Santa (I don’t want to find him coming down my chimney), which is really what I prefer to landscapes anyway. I thought Washington looked rather fetching in the painting of his wedding to Martha, but it obviously wasn’t drawn from life since it was done about a hundred years after the fact by the excellently named Junius Brutus Stearns, who was born 11 years after Washington’s death.
   
One of the Butler’s prize pieces is Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, which is totally charming in a ye olde kind of way, even though some of the children’s faces look a bit too adult, in my opinion. They even have a Van Gogh (despite being called an institute of American Art), though it is definitely one of the lesser known, fairly unmemorable ones (so much so that I can’t even remember what it was). William Paxton’s painting Sylvia (pictured above left) caught my eye though – there’s something about her expression that I really love.
  
From here, we wandered into a gallery with some holograms on the wall and a giant zoetrope, then into a section with a video showing the destruction of an IKEA living room set, and then into a really cool display of lenticular photographs by Margeaux Walter, which all starred Walter herself (I didn’t realise this until after reading the exhibition description, even though one of her photos was of an entire crowd of people doing the wave. I did think that one man who kept appearing in all the photographs looked a lot like the woman who was in them all, but figured they just might have been siblings). I also really enjoyed the mirror art just outside this gallery, which had an X to stand on in front of it so you could get in the optimum spot to capture yourself in all the mirrors (I’ve failed slightly, but it was a nice idea).
  
At this point we made our way upstairs via the flight at the back of the gallery, even though there was obviously still more to see downstairs, as I was hoping to escape some of the noise that the wedding set-up was creating (nothing too noisy I hasten to add – just people discussing where to put things, but still a bit more background noise than I like in a museum). This floor was much quieter and contained a nice mix of temporary and permanent exhibitions, an example of the latter being the American Western gallery with loads of paintings of Native Americans (and I hope it’s not culturally insensitive for me to say that I think the mask in the above picture is kind of adorable), as well as some background information about their lives and culture. There was also a gallery full of busts, including a giant one of Martin Luther King.
  
I wasn’t too keen on Todd Gray’s Pop Geometry, as it was meant to be a sort of homage to Pop Art (even though it was just mimicking Pop Art as far as I could tell, which isn’t really an homage), which is far from my favourite genre. I did love Winfred Rembert’s pieces though, which were made with carved and dyed leather, and featured vignettes from Rembert’s difficult life, including growing up black in the still heavily segregated South, picking cotton, and being forced to work in a prison chain gang. Despite the often depressing subject matter, his paintings were vibrant and full of life (as seen above).
My absolute favourite part of the whole museum was the Americana and Folk Art Gallery, located in a separate wing of the museum (accessible by a footbridge, and overlooking the interior of a chapel). I love American primitive folk art, and there was loads of that, including wooden signs (the Raven and Ring is the best. I would go to that pub for sure) and a whole room full of carousel animals (I felt bad for the poor sad donkey stood in one corner all by himself).
 
I also loved the intricate wooden bird carvings by Cliff McGinnis, and the giant facsimile of Audubon’s bird book, and even the collection of glass bells, though I couldn’t quite see the point of them (they were given as wedding gifts, but were obviously strictly for decoration, because how do you use a glass bell?). But I think the best and creepiest part was the gallery full of dolls showing off a century of American fashions. Both dolls and outfits were made by Pete Ballard, and he even gave them all names (Marcus was so freaked out by them that he spent no time in this gallery at all, other than to snap a couple quick photos, and I did my best to scare him even more by seeing if I could bring the dolls to life by calling them each by name. No dice). The only improvement would have been to move the captions explaining each outfit next to the doll in question, as they were all just up on the wall, and the dolls weren’t numbered in order of display, so it gave me a headache to keep looking back and forth to figure out who was wearing what.
  
The final room in this section was about ship art, and even contained a tiny diorama of a whale hunt (I in no way condone the killing of whales, but I am fascinated by how horrible whaling was, and I also love tiny models of things, so pretty great).
  
Having seen all this, we still had a few galleries downstairs to check out, including one with sports themed art that only got a cursory look from me, and then a few galleries of more modern stuff. Marcus and I were both initially a little apprehensive around the “Security Guard” installation, as we both thought he was a real person at first glance (and the painting on the wall behind me with all the faces is by the singer John Mellencamp, aka John Cougar, aka the voice of the Midwest, which I didn’t realise until I was researching this post). The other piece shown above is a triptych featuring residents of Youngstown in 1978 (I would totally wear the one woman’s penguin sweater).
  
Because the shop was on the other side of the museum from where we ended up, I gave it a miss, and I also didn’t get to see the Print Room downstairs because they were installing 100 Years of Print at the time, which opened in January. Even without these things, the museum was so much bigger and better than I was expecting, and I really enjoyed myself. It felt much more laid back than the CMA (even though I do love the CMA), with the only steward being an automated voice that came on and told you to step back from the paintings if you accidentally stood too close, and as a result, I felt more at liberty to really enjoy myself and interact with some of the art (unlike in some museums where I’m terrified that my shoe will accidentally squeak and a security guard will yell at me for it). And there were a lot of secret corners and stairwells with things hidden on them, like one containing a miniature of every single US president (including the current one, sadly) – it seems like you really need to visit more than once to find everything, since Marcus and I walked around separately from my parents, and we found that my parents had seen things we hadn’t, and vice versa. This is really a fantastic, little-known museum (at least in NE Ohio, maybe the CMA overshadows it?), and I highly recommend paying it a visit if you’re nearby. 4/5.
  

11 comments

  1. Another very interesting post, Jessica. Glad you had a good visit this time to a place that held bad memories for you. I enjoyed the tour of the various art. I wonder two things: how is such a museum different from a public art gallery? And this leads to a second: you have accumulated much knowledge of museums — how will you use this impressive trove of information and learning? Just wondering.

    1. I’m not sure what the official difference is between an art museum and art gallery, but for me personally, I have more of an expectation that a museum will contain information about the history of the art and perhaps the backgrounds of the artists, whereas galleries seem more often to only have the name of the work, with little to no information on what inspired it or art history in general. By that definition, the Butler Institute was definitely more of a museum.
      As to what I’m going to do with what I’ve learned, well, if anyone wants to offer me a book deal, I’ll take it! In the meantime, I do work as a visitor services officer at a small museum, so I suppose in theory knowledge accumulated from blogging would be useful in my job, though not as much as I would have hoped since we don’t have the budget to make many changes, and my job role involves disappointingly little interaction with the collection!

  2. OMG, those creepy twins are amazing. Straight out of “The Shining.” That painting better be for sale, because I’m buying it.

    1. I’m not even 100% sure that they’re actually twins, since the painting is called “The Stryker Sisters,” but they certainly could be, so I’m just choosing to believe they are because it makes them that much creepier. I doubt the Butler Institute will want to sell such a treasure, but it is available online in poster form.

  3. It goes without saying but, most of those first pieces spooked me. I can imagine that enormous girl with the ball floating towards me down a dark hall – and those twins! Christ – no, thanks. But I agree with you on that Sylvia painting – she’s quite enchanting.
    And I’m so glad you said that about the Native American mask. I loved that face the second I saw it – but felt kind of nervous mentioning that I think it’s so cute. … Anyway, it’s out there now.
    I laughed out loud at your trying to scare Marcus by calling out the dolls’ names. That’s too funny. But of course, I’d have been long gone myself. We went to see an exhibit here of the Chinese terracotta warriors and my skin was crawling the whole time. I was so disappointed in myself because I’d really wanted to see them. But man, I had a hard time turning my back to any of them. I’ve just got some serious hang-up about life-sized immobile figures.
    My neurosis aside, the Butler sounds and looks incredible. I hope I do get back to Ohio sometime so that I can check it out.

    1. I think it’s probably supposed to be frightening, which is why I felt bad about calling it cute, but it really is! The eyes are just too googly to be scary, at least as portrayed in the painting. It looks like a Muppet gone slightly wrong. I could see him and the Count hanging out.

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