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Sides must talk before Butler splits

It’s a terrible shame that a disagreement over whether to accept a wonderful art collection has now spiraled into a decision to sever a relationship that has worked so well for many years.

In recent weeks, the nonprofit foundation that provided the land and most of the funding for the Butler Institute of American Art’s Trumbull branch began the process of terminating its agreement that allows it to operate the art museum at 9350 E. Market St. as a branch of the Butler.

Foundation Medici now intends to operate the facility as a standalone museum in the hopes of still obtaining a valuable art collection from the Boy Scouts of America.

The move came because early this year, the Butler board declined to accept the $130 million art collection that includes about 350 pieces, nearly all of which are Boy Scouts-related. The main attraction is 66 works by renowned American artist Norman Rockwell. Boy Scouts of America was one of Rockwell’s first employers.

We believe the Butler board’s decision to put off accepting the collection was based on misguided fears of losing patrons or donors because of a stigma that might accompany the art based on potential legal and financial challenges the Boy Scouts of America faces from past child abuse allegations.

By tabling the decision for at least a year, the board might have effectively killed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase the second-largest collection of original art by Rockwell.

Bringing the exhibit to Howland’s branch of the Butler Museum — a museum that specializes in American art — seemed to be a beautiful fit.

At first, board members agreed late last year to the custodianship of the collection. But in an about-face, the board voted in January to table the request. That decision followed a Wall Street Journal story that reported the BSA was exploring all options, including filing for bankruptcy, to protect itself from the potential lawsuits that could happen as states lengthen and eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assault claims.

The reasoning from the board and Butler Executive Director Louis Zona bounced from hesitation over spending money to transport the collection to the Mahoning Valley and insure it, to apprehension about displaying Boy Scout-themed art when the organization was receiving such negative publicity, to concerns over time limitations because of the museum’s anniversary celebration this year.

We disagree and see custodianship of the collection here as a golden opportunity for the museum and for Trumbull County.

In fact, we see the decision as incredibly short-sighted and unfair to the art community and museum patrons.

Now, more than six months have passed, and the Butler still refuses to budge on the decision, giving Foundation Medici little choice but to act.

Funders angry over the feet-dragging have given the required six-months notice that they will sever their relationship with the Butler. It’s expected that attorneys will step in to facilitate this divorce of sorts, determining what stays in Howland and what goes to Youngstown, and dividing the assets.

Just like the end to any longtime union, this division will be painful and sad.

While we understand the decision comes based on what appears to be irreconcilable differences, we still would prefer to see this threat to end the relationship trigger more aggressive and more focused talks.

So we urge the sides, once again, to come to the table with serious intentions of resolving this dispute. Do it for the good of art lovers everywhere and for the good of the Mahoning Valley.

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