American originals The Butler Institute and Lou Zona showcase artistic treasures

Lou Zona wears many hats and has never met an employee or volunteer he doesn't like.
IT DOESN'T MATTER THAT LOU ZONA HAD nothing on his day planner. By 10 a.m. he'd already met with the architect regarding a renovation project, done a newspaper interview about recent acquisitions and looked over the progress of a volunteer who is working on a major printing project.
It seems there is never a dull moment for the director of the Butler Institute of American Art.
Zona, a New Castle, Pa., native who assumed his role at one of America's premier museums 21 years ago, breezes through it all, hardly breaking a sweat. No matter what is thrown at him, he takes it all in stride.
"I remember back when I was selling car parts," he said. "I used to wake up in the morning and think, 'I can't believe I have to go sell car parts to dealerships.' Now, I can't wait to get out of bed and come to work."
It's not unusual for Zona to start his day early. Each day he leaves the Lawrence County home he shares with his wife, Pat, and 17-year-old daughter, Tace, and makes the drive to Youngstown. He is in the building and settled behind his desk by 8:30 most mornings, prepared to stay until the late afternoon or early evening.
Variety of duties
His duties vary from day to day, week to week, depending on what's happening at the Butler. On this particular day, he is waiting for contractors to arrive to begin working on enclosing the back sculpture deck of the Wick Avenue building.
"This left side will be a cafe, while on the right, or the south side, will be where we relocate the museum shop," he said, standing and looking at the rear of the building, pointing and making sweeping gestures with his arms and hands.
"The center portion will be enclosed with a sort of glass canopy."
While waiting for the contractors, he will:
UTravel to the Trumbull County branch of the museum to discuss a CD project the museum is partnering with local musician Joe Augustine.
U Look over the prototype for new placards designed to provide information on pieces and the artists.
U Wander around in the vault that houses the museum's more than 8,000 permanent collection pieces to find additional paintings to hang in one of the galleries.
No matter what the task, everything Zona does has that goal in mind: Put the Butler's best foot forward and give the people the best possible experience they can have.
Reaching the kids
"One of my favorite things is when we get the students in here each year and someone comes in here for the first time," Zona said, his face lighting up just thinking about it.
He also enjoys the annual two-week summer camp sponsored by the Butler, which brings music and art to disabled and inner-city youths.
"If we were never to do anything else but this camp, then it would all still be worth it," Zona said.
It's no wonder he is proud of his job and the museum. Referred to by more than one media outlet as "America's museum," the Butler houses one of the most prestigious collections of American art in the country.
He is also very proud of the staff and group of volunteers at the museum. As he walks through the galleries, he smiles at everyone he encounters, taking time to shake their hands and ask them how they're doing. He is sincere when he asks.
As he walks away, he readily comments about how big a help this worker is, how much that volunteer has done for the Butler; he remarks about how good a person someone is and points out that person is a true friend to the museum.
It's apparent that's how Zona thinks of everyone who works or volunteers at the Butler. They are not just employees, but true friends. That attitude rubs off, making everyone who sets foot inside want to work as hard as Zona to bring in new faces and make the Butler a true gem for the area.
Ever-changing exhibits
So it's no wonder Zona is still surprised by the number of people from the Mahoning Valley who have never set foot in the building.
Since the museum, which was founded in 1919, is free, he finds it amazing people have not taken advantage of everything in the museum. There are not just "old paintings," he points out, but installation pieces, sculptures and even technology-based art. The Butler was one of the first museums in the country to recognize that new artists were using computers and other high-tech gadgets to push art to the next level, and created an entire wing in the building to display the creations.
There is always something going on at the Butler. Currently the museum has a display of pieces from the Ringling Museum in Florida. Most exhibitions take several months to a few years of planning. Zona and his staff will usually coordinate the details of an exchange with another museum to obtain a portion of an artist's collection of work for display before presenting it to the museum's board of directors for approval.
The masterpieces currently on loan to the Butler include a Rembrandt. In exchange, the local museum sent off 55 of its pieces. Though it's common for museums to exchange portions of their collections, it still makes Zona nervous.
"The closest call we ever had was in Mexico," he said. "When we were coming back over the border, one of the guards seemed to think there was something suspicious about one of the crates the pieces were packed in. The guards wanted to open it, but our museum representatives said they couldn't.
"The guards said, 'Oh we can't, huh?' and they proceeded to tear open the crate," he continued. "Luckily, nothing happened and nothing was damaged, but it was a little nerve-wracking."
Busy man
It's just another part of Zona's job description. As director, it is his duty to oversee the day-to-day operations of the museum, similar to running a small business.
He serves as a fund-raiser, public relations specialist, defender of art, bargain hunter when it comes to acquisitions, volunteer coordinator and even a little bit circus barker. His one diversion from the pressures of work is his love of the Pittsburgh Pirates. An avid baseball fan, Zona catches as many games as he can each year and spends the winter months chatting up other baseball fans.
Despite all the hard work at the Butler, it doesn't stop him from dreaming of doing even more.
"Sometimes it just isn't enough," he said. "We are sometimes in our own world. It's the little things that eat at me. I just want everyone to know that we have, right here in our own back yard, one of the greatest treasures of our country."

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