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Artistic revolution: Butler Institute embraces the future with Beecher Center

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

YOUNGSTOWN -- The Butler Institute of American Art, long a repository of American painting, now embraces the 21st century with its new Beecher Center for Art & Technology, a $4.25 million three-story wing in contemporary design on the south side of the Butler's white marble Neoclassic temple.

The Butler Institute of American Art's new Beecher Center for Art & Technology will focus on technology in art in its exhibition space, auditorium, conference room and classrooms. The three-story, 28,000-square-foot addition, located on the south side of the museum's Neoclassic temple, cost $4.25 million to build. 

The 28,000-square-foot addition, with 19,000 square feet of new exhibition space, contains a 122-seat auditorium with a Dolby VII sound system, a large meeting/conference room and classrooms designed to bring students close to electronic art and what the Internet offers serious art students.

The wing is the brainchild of Butler director Louis A. Zona, who also teaches art at Youngstown State University next door.

The new facility offers enclosed and sky-lighted galleries, tan marble halls and high-tech components to usher in what Zona hopes will be a new era for American art and technology here. Zona is looking forward to increased international visibility for this fine museum, which is 75 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh.

"This art is the future, and the Butler will be a part of that future," Zona said before Friday evening's dedication. "Some experts question the importance of technology in art and contemporary art itself, but to ignore it is silly. The kids who come here scream with pleasure when they see the gallery filled with video art by Nam June Paik, Korean-American father of video art.

"This is their world. From it we can only try to interest them further in the Butler's wonderful painting collection. The founder of this institute was dedicated to the art of his day and we can't be any less dedicated."

In 1987, the museum raised $4.5 million to construct Beecher Court, which filled in a garden between the original building's U-shaped wings. This time, a $3.25 million grant from the State of Ohio in conjunction with Youngstown State University was added to $1 million raised locally to finance the addition.

Youngstown architect Gary Balog, the designer of Beecher Court and the 1991 sculpture terrace, also created the Beecher Center, which is reminiscent of buildings by Richard Meier, architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

The Beecher Center's lower level contains creative lab spaces planned with Youngstown State students in mind. Here artists in the electronics field will work with students to create art that will be seen around the world through the Internet. The floor also contains the mechanical plant, electrical data equipment and storage.

But there is no doubt the center also challenges the Butler to keep up with a rapidly changing medium. Zona notes that technology in art changes every three years; and what is hot today may quickly fade. Viewers are reminded of this fact by a display of the international hologram collection of Jonathan Ross of London.

Holograms, photographs that seem to move under light, were at their artistic peak in the 1980s. Ross, a gallery owner, has acquired hundreds over the past 20 years, creating one of the world's important collections. One hundred of his best holograms may be seen at the Butler through March 12. A particularly arresting hologram by Briton Margaret Beyon, "Tigirl," 1985, is a self-portrait that morphs into a tiger's head. Another hologram shows the back of a nude man lifting his leg which brings to mind the stop-action photographs of Edweard Muybridge.

Despite its emphasis on the new, the Beecher Center will not ignore the past. Art students and outside scholars can use computers to examine the Butler's archives, which are being scanned into a museum database. Via the Internet, they also can examine the art and archives of other museums and libraries.

The Butler's archives include hundreds of videotapes in which Zona and others have interviewed many of the outstanding artists and critics who have visited the Butler as jurors or lecturers. They include: Robert Rauschenberg, who last year had shows at the Butler and its satellite galleries in Niles and Salem, Ohio; the late New York art dealer Leo Castelli; and American abstractionist Paul Jenkins, native of nearby Struthers, Ohio, who has donated works to the Butler.

How will the Beecher Center, named for local donors, help the Butler?

"Artists and technologists are already approaching us for gallery space and teaching possibilities," Zona said.

To mark the opening, in addition to the hologram exhibition, the Butler is presenting "In Line," a comprehensive retrospective of Al Hirschfeld, 96, acclaimed Broadway caricaturist. For more than 70 years, Hirschfeld has had his line drawings in The New York Times. Last Friday, he was awarded the Butler Medal for lifetime achievement in the arts.

The caricaturist said he looks on his work as a luxury. "I've always drawn; it's all-consuming. You create an artistic problem and then you solve it. I don't know what else I would do but my simple drawings and going to the theater."

His show offers early sculpture and seldom-seen drawings from the 1920s as well as many more recent drawings. Zona calls the artist's caricatures as much a part of America's popular culture as any film, play, song or television production.

Paul Jenkins, abstract master who also attended Friday's opening, is exhibiting recent abstract paintings. Instead of long swathes of rich color, the pigment is seen in small prismatic blocks that float in monotone fields of twilight color.

Michael Hardesty, who some years ago exhibited his candle installation with the Three Rivers Arts Festival in the Wood Street Galleries, is showing "Candle Blower," another installation. A video of his own face, looking like a younger Chuck Close, tries to blow out a real candle mounted on a mound of melted wax in a dark room.

This is "absurdly impossible," he writes in a gallery label, but the piece "could stem from my nagging doubt three-dimensional beings will ever successfully plumb four-dimension space/time, or suspicions of the pointlessness of creating art or mankind creating anything."

Also on exhibit are digitally mastered photographic portraits by artist/musician Graham Nash. He and 20 other artists are associated with his digital salon, Nash Editions. Nash stands for what the Beecher Center is about: exploring a new renaissance in which, Zona says, "accepted boundaries are being pushed and pulled, resulting in an art form totally redefined."

The Butler, at 524 Wick Ave., is easily reached by the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes. Take the first Ohio exit (16A) and follow north 12 miles. Watch for signs to Youngstown State University. Hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. Free admission. Information: 330-743-1711

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