A day at the Butler Institute of American Art

By Jillian McIntosh

The Butler Institute of American Art is where people can take a pause on life, surrounded by art and those who love it. It is the families who visit hand-in-hand, the children pulling their parents in the direction of an art piece that catches their eye. It is an art docent giving a tour to a couple visiting from out of town, pointing at the direction where to walk next. 

Art docents can be volunteers, some may be working out of retirement. Marty Young is an art docent who walks along every painting, looking closely and taking notes for her next tour. When asked why she continues to work here, she mentioned her love for the museum. 

“I love being surrounded by the art. I love the atmosphere. I love the people I work with, and the opportunities it gives me to continue learning in my retirement,” said Young.

When visiting, the limestone steps leading up to the entrance are tinted green due to the weather. Tall columns split the entrance in three arcs found at the top of the staircase. The blue tile above creates a geometric mosaic that flows along the rounded ceiling. “Pro Bono Publico” reads at the top of the two door gold entrance. The rhythmic clicking of footsteps is the only sound that follows when entering, leaving behind the fluttering of the American flag and the whistling of the wind. The bird chirps and trees rustling are swallowed by the quiet and calm that instantly is welcomed. A brush of air is blown and the scent of old oak hits anyone who enters. 

The grand hall is the first thing seen, the sunshine from the skylight that encompasses the entire ceiling reflects off the gray bricked granite floor. The same floor where the bride meets the groom on their wedding day. The same floor where the blue and pink bounce off from the light-up sneakers of an excited child. Red velvet ropes hang still and gold plated frames are seen yet unnoticed when near the art. The only sounds that are heard are the whispering conversations of people passing by and the hushed blowing of the air conditioning. The buzzing of lights is beyond comparison to the echoing sound of dings and vibrations from the moving machinery artwork down the hall. 

Hands are clasped behind the back or in the embrace of another, walking briskly along to each painting. When standing, their feet are pointing toward the art. When walking, their feet move in the direction of the next display. Even their body language gravitates toward the art. The benches in the center of every gallery are offered as an opportunity for visitors to either fully immerse themselves or completely separate themselves from the art. One may find a visitor waiting patiently for their loved ones to finish their stroll around the museum. 

Jonathon Blackshire sat on a bench after giving his mother a tour of the second floor while visiting for her first time. He expressed his passion for the Butler. 

“I really like a lot of the unique pieces of the Butler that were gifted to them,” said Blackshire.  

New Yorkers on the subway strip, waiting for their train before work. The Two singers smoking out of a wooden pipe, dressed in 1950s attire. Girls in white dresses frolicking in the tall green grass and pink flowers. A security guard sitting hunched, looking at the ground in front of him. All captured by an artist and left untouched but observed every day. Visitors like Blackshire’s mother are shocked at how realistic the statue of the security guard is.

 “There’s the security guard in  the north corner that is really cool. It totally freaked my mom out,” he said.  

Each painting is a portal for one to travel through time and distance. As if the art is alive, they take the role everyday of being displayed for their beauty. Before anyone arrives, the artwork eagerly takes their places in the museum, ready for visitors. The collections are cleaned and kept safe by art preparers. 

John Elias is the chief preparator for the museum. He is one of the few who are granted access to the unseen artwork that are kept in the vaults. 

“That’s always interesting because it’s a lot of the artwork that nobody ever sees,” he said. “We have over 20,000 objects in our collection and you only get to see this small bit, or whatever is being seen.” 

The fine art that is displayed watches people pass, caught with curiosity in their eyes. Blackshire expressed his love for the optical illusion of Vincent Van Gogh’s various works. 

“My favorite piece that I love to see is that 3-D installation of Van Gogh,” he said. 

The motionless sculptures stand tall in the grand hall and various galleries. Every painting acts as center stage for the people painted, illuminated by the spotlight above. Although the art remains still, there is constant movement in the museum. 

Visitors dressed in blazers keep their hands closely to themselves, careful not to touch the art. Kids on a school field trip hold hands up high and lean on their tiptoes, only wanting to get closer. 

If the day is rainy and cold, the silence is almost deafening when there is little to none visiting. If the day is sunny and warm, laughter and people shushing others to keep the peace will be heard echoing through the galleries. The experience of an art museum can almost completely cut off the outside world upon entering. 

Elias said as an art lover, he appreciates  the exhibits. 

“As a painter, I often sway more towards the painting than maybe the sculpture,” he said. “I would say out of everything in the museum, my favorite exhibit is the Western gallery with the Native American portraits.” 

Young also said that is her favorite gallery, as well as the Impressionist gallery. Those walking with their heads down or on their phones outside appear sad compared to those only looking everywhere, trying to see everything in the museum. Not one electronic device can be seen, other than the security guard on duty, looking at his phone from boredom. 

Young reminisced about the people she’s met while working. 

“We’ve had people from Switzerland and England and from all over the United States,” she said. “Once, I met a lady who was a docent at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and she was visiting Ohio,” said Young. 

Art brings people who are excited to come for the first time. It brings people who always come, but with a friend this time. People from all over the state who have heard of the Butler, people from all over the county who came to visit Ohio. Art brings people from all over the entire world who visit museums everywhere they travel to.

Art brings people together. The Butler is a community and it grows every day.