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Diversity concerns stall display of art downtown

Submitted photo A replica of this Norman Rockwell painting — “Lincoln the Railsplitter” — from the Butler Institute of American Art has been proposed for display downtown.

YOUNGSTOWN — The city’s design review committee tabled a proposal from Youngstown CityScape to put up replicas of three paintings downtown from the Butler Institute of American Art to raise awareness of the museum after Councilman Julius Oliver said there was no representation of minority art.

Oliver, D-1st Ward, also said at Tuesday’s meeting that one of the selected paintings — “Lincoln the Railsplitter” by Norman Rockwell — could be divisive as President Abraham Lincoln had said in his lifetime that black people shouldn’t be equal to whites and that it would be better for the two races to live separately.

“There isn’t diversity” in the paintings selected, said Oliver. “You don’t have any pieces of art representing black and brown people.”

Martha Morgan, CityScape’s grant writer, said the paintings — “Lincoln the Railsplitter,” Robert Vonnoh’s “In Flanders Field” and Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip” — were selected by Louis A. Zona, the Butler’s executive director, and Sharon Letson, CityScape’s executive director.

The three are “the most well known” paintings in the Butler collection, Morgan said.

Oliver responded: “Well known by who?” and added he’s never heard of “Snap the Whip. ”

“Snap the Whip” returned in March to the Butler after being part of a national tour of Homer’s work, and a second version of Homer’s painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art of New York City.

Law Director Jeff Limbian agreed with Oliver that the three paintings chosen reflect a “white-centered universe, and it doesn’t seem right.”

Adam Lee, CityScape’s program director, said the goal of the replica paintings is to “make sure people are aware of the museum. The Butler doesn’t get enough patronage when it’s one of the finest” art museums.

Oliver said: “What you’re saying is, you want to get more white people to the Butler.”

Morgan said the concept is to incorporate art into the city’s downtown gardens and these three paintings were a start. But she also said there may not be other paintings added.

Nikki Posterli, the mayor’s chief of staff and a design review committee member, said CityScape needed to determine if the paintings can be switched, add diversity and let the committee know if more paintings would be added.

The committee decided Tuesday to postpone a vote on the proposal until those questions can be answered. The committee next meets Sept. 7.

After the meeting, Oliver said: “The three pieces don’t represent the city. We need to move toward fair and equitable. There’s more than Caucasians in Youngstown. There’s a lot of people who want to make downtown as white as possible. We need to come together. Black people like art, too. When you’ve only got one group of people making decisions, this is what happens. They probably didn’t even think about it.”

The committee approved a number of other proposals Tuesday including:

∫ A plan to add benches, planters, garbage cans and shrubs to the Phelps Street project between West Federal and West Front streets that began June 4. The project is expected to take six months to complete and will eliminate parking spaces for cars along the road and make it easier for pedestrians to use.

∫ Renovations and other improvements to the Avalon Downtown restaurant at 15 and 17 W. Federal St. including replacing cracked and rotting trim boards, painting stucco and replacing security lighting and the store’s sign.

∫ The installation of two signs at 101 W. Federal St. for the Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway law firm, which is opening on the building’s upper floor.

One issue was a tailor who is also on the second floor installed two neon signs without the committee’s approval. The tailor will be required to remove the signs, said Charles Shasho, a design review committee member and the city’s deputy director of public works.

∫ A new digital sign for the front of the Butler. The sign will be 4 feet high by 8 feet wide and replace an older 2 feet by 8 feet sign.

∫ An aluminum sign at 112 W. Commerce St. for OH Donut Co. to replace the One Hot Cookie sign. The owners changed the downtown business a few months ago.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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