During Lou Zona's tenure, the Butler has branched out in many ways.
YOUNGSTOWN -- After a quarter of a century as director of the Butler Institute of American Art, Lou Zona is still making plans. And admission to the Butler is still free.
In 1981, when Lou Zona became director, he could not have imagined that 2 1/2 decades would go by so quickly, or that his love of the visual arts and passion for art history could have led him to experience the complexities of the juggling act known as museum administration.
"It really is a matter of keeping a few balls in the air at one time," Zona said. "The challenge is always to maintain high quality in our programs, and also to appeal to the average museum visitor who may have no art background. At the same time, we've got to be as creative as possible in asking for support without offending anyone."
Early days
At the outset, Zona faced formidable obstacles.
As the first Butler director not descended from the museum's founder, Zona soon discovered that his Carnegie Mellon University doctoral degree and tenure as professor of art history and art department chairman at Youngstown State University provided none of the blood lines when it came to wooing many longtime Butler patrons.
So Zona, a confirmed "museum populist," set out instead to court the local business community, state arts council, regional foundations and the public-at-large in a campaign to establish a base of financial as well as spiritual support.
Early results of these efforts brought about the Butler's first humidity and temperature control and security systems, a paintings conservation/restoration program for Butler masterpieces, an acquisition fund to add important historic and contemporary works to the museum's four-century survey, and an education department with a vital tour program and art class offerings.
Most importantly, the Butler's attendance increased -- dramatically.
Five years into his tenure as director, Zona spearheaded a massive West Wing addition project that more than doubled the Butler exhibition spaces and substantially increased art storage areas.
This $4.5 million project was completed in 1987, funded primarily by companies and residents of a blue-collar region that had just experienced the demise of its primary financial resource -- the steel industry.
"In the beginning," said Zona, "it was about educating the public to the fact that if the great Butler Institute was to survive and flourish, it would be up to them. The gist of that educational campaign was that while a wealthy industrialist was our founder, the Butler belongs to all of us, and it's up to us to maintain it and to keep it viable."
National presence
Zona soon set out to court a national presence for the Butler by making himself known to private collectors, gallery owners, museum officials and art critics through an aggressive temporary exhibitions program and collection sharing initiatives.
From exhibitions of private collections, including that of Leo Castelli, to solo shows by contemporary masters such as Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Ken Noland, Robert Motherwell and Judy Chicago, and displays of Butler masterpieces in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and international venues -- Japan, Germany, Rome, Paris -- the Butler name soon became a presence and firmly established as a part of the art world buzz.
In an innovative programming move, Zona established a permanent gallery for the display of pastels, and dedicated the space to the founder of the Pastel Society of America, Flora B. Giffuni, thus cultivating another audience and talent pool for ongoing temporary exhibitions.
"Curating exhibition is one of the toughest jobs in a museum, but it's also the most fun," said Zona. "So I refuse to relinquish the curatorial responsibilities built into my job description. I've loved the idea that the Butler does such a variety of exhibitions from historic to contemporary."
A favorite
In the 25 years of his tenure, Zona estimates that more than 600 temporary exhibitions have been shown at the Butler, with one-third of that number being organized in-house.
One of his favorites, titled "The Artist at Ringside," brought together three centuries of American paintings that shared the sport of boxing as theme.
"That show sure was a lot of fun. I recall that we even set up a boxing ring in our large atrium space and had a few amateur bouts in the museum's central court. Even NBC's "Today Show" covered it. But in the end, it was about the fact that boxing as a theme has always appealed to American artists, and the marriage of art and boxing has produced many masterpieces."
Growing branches
In 1991, Zona marked his 10-year directorship by courting Columbiana County Salem Community Foundation to sponsor a branch of the Butler Institute in Salem. Now in its 15th year, the Butler Salem branch has presented more than 100 exhibitions, including the display of Butler collection pieces, regional and national group shows, and solo exhibitions of nationally prominent artists in all media.
Five years later, a second Butler branch museum was established. Zona and a group of art enthusiasts/collectors who created Foundation Medici funded a satellite of the Butler in Howland.
Land was donated and a building designed specifically to display exhibitions created by the Butler. In its 10 years, the Butler Trumbull branch has presented more than 60 exhibitions. Works by Europeans including Gaston La Chaise and Pierre Soulages have been exhibited there under a program Zona conceived, "Influence on America."
Selections from the collections of the Petite Palais, and the Museum of Modern Art Mexico and solo shows of works by William Baziotes, Al Held, Isamu Noguchi and Louise Nevelson have also been exhibited in the beautiful, skylighted space.
Both satellites offer programs, tours and classes, and admission to these facilities is free.
"This is the ultimate in museum outreach -- to actually set up shop in a neighboring community and have the Butler come to you, so to speak," Zona said. "We've enjoyed our relationship with these communities and soon discovered that each has its very own personality. Thus we've attempted to serve them by being sensitive to their wants and needs. Our Trumbull branch has been about the avant-garde for the most part, while the Salem branch is about saluting Ohio artists and the more traditional."
High-tech media
Though art and science have a long association, the advent of technology as a medium for contemporary artists has exploded in recent years.
This fact prompted Zona to raise funds to create another addition to the Youngstown facility, the Beecher Center wing, created with neighboring Youngstown State University.
With a one-time grant from the state of Ohio and matching funds from the Beecher Foundations, the 19,000-square-foot building, wired for all digital technologies, has offered a pioneering program of new age art including works of holography, laser, installation, video and online presentations.
The Beecher Center wing also offers a learning laboratory to art students at YSU, with year-round university classes in computer animation, design and filmmaking.
"When you think about it," Zona said, "when Mr. Butler was building his collection in the early 20th century, he was buying the art of such then-contemporary masters as William Paxton and Robert Vonnoh. With that in mind, the Butler continues to emphasize contemporary art through the Beecher Center, which is dedicated to new media. We're learning that artists throughout the world who work in the new media have now discovered the Beecher Center."
Education center
With all of the growth seen during his tenure, it might seem natural for Zona to rest on his laurels. But that's not the case, as a new vision has emerged in the form of an arts education center to be located next to the Butler's historic Youngstown building.
Acquired by the museum in 2005 in a quiet competition between Zona and neighboring landowners who also desired the property, this three-story 22,000-square-foot facility, formerly the First Christian Church, is being converted into the Butler's Dennison Education Center.
"This certainly is a real challenge," said Zona. "And it will have to be accomplished with such limited funding. However, we are committed to turning this beautiful 1937 church building into a first-class education and performance arts center."
Perhaps Zona has set a record of sorts with his long tenure as steward of one of America's best museums of art. Under Zona's direction, the dramatic growth of the physical structure, significant increase in Butler holdings, and innovative exhibition program have thrust the Institute into the forefront of museums in the Midwest.
Yet Zona takes the success in his stride, continuing to teach university museum studies and 20th-century art history classes, giving talks to area civic groups and overseeing the training of Butler docents.
"I'm fortunate to have an excellent and dedicated staff to share the load. There's a lot of talent in this small group of professionals, so I feel very blessed to work along side of them. I've loved every moment of my 25 years of service, and in fact, I came to work today just as excited as I was when I began as Butler director on that August day of 1981."

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.