County needs Rockwell, Butler
SMH. I’m not a fan of social media abbreviations. But lately even I have been using “SMH” — shaking my head — to the point I feel like a living bobblehead doll.
The latest SMH took place when I learned that Foundation Medici intends to sever its operating agreement with the Butler Institute of American Art. The idea stems from one disagreement over an issue that could rectify itself with calm and collected people sitting at a table like leaders should.
The issue, of course, is the Butler’s board in January tabling action to bring Norman Rockwell’s collection of Boy Scouts of America paintings to the Valley for long-term display. While some hesitancy may have been warranted to game plan the event of a possible BSA bankruptcy, I disagreed with the decision to table the motion. Many good people in the Valley worked for many a month to bring this opportunity to the Butler. If the documentation can be written to safeguard the Butler in case of a Boy Scouts filing, then the idea of giving these great American works a safe harbor to be seen and loved should be a priority.
But responding to one mistake by making a bigger mistake makes no sense.
When my wife and I decided to leave my native Mahoning Valley again to return to New York City in 2013, I told a journalist that my heart will always be in the Valley and my soul will always be in New York, and I need to satisfy both. The bridge in our culture between the heart and the soul is art. And the bridge from the Mahoning Valley to the rest of the world — especially the art world — is the Butler. Over the last few years, my wife Jakyung (a former artist and Soho gallery docent herself) and I have increasingly been making it a point to engage in the New York art scene. Last fall, we were having brunch with a couple who are two of the most revered sculpture artists in the U.S. They told me there is love of the Butler and director Lou Zona among all the great U.S. artists. They view Lou as a protector of American artists’ dreams and works. They all say how the Butler has a stellar reputation in the American and international art community. I soon realized the only place the Butler is sometimes underappreciated is in the Valley itself.
One of the issues the Valley is only slowly overcoming is the parochialism of the communities, especially the Mahoning-Trumbull counties barrier that existed for too long. It is absolutely the worst time to eliminate the one institution that was an oil-on-canvas olive branch over that invisible, but ever present, wall. The impact of General Motors-Lordstown losing shifts and ultimately closing will be a 10 percent hit to the Valley GDP. When I was co-chair of the Valley’s Power of the Arts collective earlier this decade, a study revealed that arts in the Valley created nearly $27 million in annual economic activity and the equivalent of 900-plus jobs. Why would anyone try to jeopardize that activity when the Valley was knocked down a peg in March, and is valiantly fighting to get back up and prove to the nation, and the world, that it is the definition of resiliency?
The board of the Butler, the Medici Foundation and those involved in the Rockwell collection acquisition must get back to the table. The Valley needs their leadership more than ever. Bring the collection to the Valley — in a way that still protects the Butler. Doing nothing and letting an ill-timed chasm form in the Valley is not an option.
My mother’s cousin was a Marion Order priest who lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Like most other citizens of Stockbridge, he posed for a Rockwell painting. He posed bent over for hours in heavy priestly garments as Rockwell depicted Midnight Mass in Bethlehem with soldiers looking on. I am sure Fr. Frank felt the sacrifice to his lower back was worth it, in the name of art. In the name of protecting a body of great American art and Mahoning Valley’s standing in the art community, resolve this issue and stay together.
Planey is a Mahoning Valley native who now serves as director for a New York City financial corporation This column is based solely on his opinion and does not reflect the views of his employer.