With the addition of new galleries in the Butler North Education Center in Youngstown, folks might start calling the neighboring museum the Butler Institute of Americana Art.
Folk art and exhibitions with Americana themes will be the emphasis of the new third-floor galleries that will open to the public next month at the former First Christian Church on Wick Avenue. And in keeping with the Butler's interest in modern technology, the two buildings now are joined by a sleek, glass-enclosed skywalk over the parking lot that separates the structures.
The galleries and the skywalk are the result of a $1.5 million project, which will be unveiled to Butler members at a dedication ceremony Sept. 12 and will open to the public the following day.
Louis Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, stands in front of a funhouse mirror in the carousel room, one of the galleries in the new Butler North expansion. Photo by Andy Gray
Butler Director Louis Zona said, "We'll be able to show a lot of things we've collected over time and couldn't show before. Now we finally have a good home for them."
Many of the pieces that will be featured in the initial displays are part of the collection of George Breckner, a longtime art teacher in Howland Schools who died in 2005.
"He was an avid collector of folk art and Americana," Zona said. "He left his entire collection to the Butler when he passed on."
A display case in the hallway gallery of the education center includes about two dozen of the more than 150 hand-carved wooden ducks in his collection, some of which date back to the mid-19th century. The museum already has heard from collectors who learned the Butler would be showing Breckner's collection.
In addition to the hallway gallery, the third floor will include three gallery spaces, each with a different theme. Another room filled with Breckner's collection focuses on "Art of the Carousel," where visitors can see full-size carousel horses, wood-carved pieces that decorated merry-go-rounds and even an old funhouse mirror.
A second gallery has a nautical theme, and its displays include scale model ships and harbor scenes created by George B. Woodside (1867-1960) of Warren.
"These aren't the kind of models that come in a kit," Zona said.
The third gallery primarily will feature exhibitions from outside of the Butler's permanent collection.
"If we were offered an exhibition of historic quilts or dolls or other types of Americana art, this is where we would put it," Zona said. "Or maybe contemporary craft people whose work is inspired by folk art."
The opening exhibit will be "Gary T. Erbe: Painting Americana," featuring the work of the New Jersey artist who's been displayed many times at the Butler over the years. It includes magnificently detailed works inspired by 1950s television and recreations of the first comic books to feature Batman and Superman. Some of the pieces have a three-dimensional quality where Erbe has cut pieces in specific shapes, arranged them on the canvas and then painted them.
"Everything you're looking at on his canvases is all painted," Zona said.
Zona leaned in to the get a closer look at a hand broom in one of the paintings that was so realistic it appeared as if someone could get pricked by the straw by reaching out to touch it.
"I can't even imagine painting that," Zona said.
The Butler has owned the former First Christian Church since 2005, when it was purchased with a bequest from the late Gail Dennison. The latest renovations were paid for through contributions from regional companies, area foundations and private donors.
The church was built in 1934 on land originally owned by the museum.
Kathryn Earnhart, public relations director for the Butler, said, "They owned the building, but the museum retained ownership of the property."
As attendance dwindled at the church, its leaders decided to sell. Other older buildings, including churches, in the Wick Avenue area have been purchased by Youngstown State University and demolished as the campus expanded.
"They really wanted us to have it," Earnhart said. "They didn't want it torn down, and being a museum, they knew our mission was preservation."
The renovation of the building has been done to preserve as much of the original architecture as possible. Panels have been placed in front of the windows in the third floor galleries, which provide the needed wall space to display art without eliminating the exterior windows. The panels also don't run all the way to the ceiling so the original ceiling molding still is visible.
With the walkway connecting the two buildings, it will be easier for tours to incorporate both structures and increase opportunities to use the first floor of the church.
The altar has been removed in the sanctuary and replaced by a stage, which can be used for concerts, lectures and other events. The stained glass windows and many of the pews remain.
"Since 2005 we've been slowly renovating the electrical, the heating, the plumbing," Earnhart said. "Now we're hoping to use it more."