A SCOUTING ADVENTURE WITH NORMAN ROCKWELL, IN THE MAHONING VALLEY
Five and a half miles due east from downtown Warren, Ohio, in the heart of Howland Township, sits the Medici Museum, which is completely singular on account of its current exhibition and how it got there.
Norman Rockwell: American Scouting Collection includes no less than 65 original Rockwell oil paintings that the revered American artist and illustrator created for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) over six decades, mostly for covers of Boys’ Life magazine. It is the first time they have all been displayed together. The exhibition also includes a handful of scout-themed works from Walt Disney, Rockwell predecessor Joseph Leyendecker, and successor Joseph Csatari.
There are more scouts to come.
“We expanded the museum to over 14,000 square feet,” says Medici’s Associate Director Katelyn Amendolara-Russo. “Ultimately, our museum went from six galleries to ten.” Those new additions range from 484- to 2,170-square-feet. Youngstown-based Murphy Contracting broke ground in April for the $1.8 million expansion, which was designed by architect Robert Buchanan of Poland, Ohio. The move was enabled in no small part by a $1 million anonymous donation that landed along with the Rockwells.
To fill all those new galleries, Amendolara-Russo will tap additional pieces from the expansive BSA collection, including an array of Csatari originals. The Medici, however, will not be exclusively dedicated to the Scouts.
Currently, a collection of Bill Thompson’s minimalist work lines the walls of Gallery 6. “Carole Feuerman’s hyperrealist sculptures exhibition will open this summer,” says Amendolara-Russo. “D’Arcy Bellamy will be on display this fall,” she adds. The new galleries will also be home to the James and Renie Grohl Collection. James, who died in 2014, was a noted area journalist and father to David Grohl, founder of the Foo Fighters and drummer for Nirvana. “We are currently finalizing the remainder of our exhibition schedule now and will share more info on our website and social media.”
Scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2021, the expansion also includes a new museum shop and classroom with northern-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. “It’s ideal for painting and drawing,” says Amendolara-Russo, adding that the space could also be used as a conference room or small auditorium to view video projections for gallery installations. She also noted future plans for an outdoor café wine bar, complete with a fireplace and sculpture garden.
“That will be like a gathering place after visitors come and see the art.”
Hence, while the days ahead for the Medici are very bright indeed, it’s unclear how permanently the scouts will play into it. The story of how they landed at 9350 East Market Street is no less than remarkable, particularly when viewed through the refined lens of the art world.
When the Butler Institute of Art’s Trumbull Branch debuted in this building in 1996, the sleek modernist venue boasted more than 10,000 square feet of airy gallery space. Foundation Medici, helmed by area businessman and benefactor David Max Draime, largely funded the project.
For more than twenty years, the space hosted exhibitions by an array of American artists. A 2007 solo exhibition featured the lush abstract works of Ronnie Landfield. In 2013, John Mellencamp had his first show, which included more than forty original oils from the acclaimed singer-songwriter. The space welcomed an array of group shows, such as the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, which held their annual juried show in Howland in 2015. The museum also garnered national attention in 2010 when it acquired a 20 x 14-foot ceramic mural by the renowned French artist Pierre Soulages: 14 May, 1968. The piece was previously displayed in Downtown Pittsburgh’s One Oliver Plaza.
Such was the life of the Butler’s Trumbull County branch, at least until 2017 when all those fresh-faced Boy Scouts appeared on the scene—sort of.
The BSA still owns the collection, which includes more than 400 items. The Rockwells alone are valued between $100 and $130 million. For years, a selection of them was displayed at BSA’s National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas. When that facility closed in 2017, all of it—including the 65 original Rockwells—headed for storage.
Local attorney Ned Gold saw an opportunity bloom. Gold has been involved with the Scouts for more than seventy years. He was a scout as a youth and chaired the BSA’s Youth Protection Committee for the organization’s thirteen-state central region for a half-dozen years. He was also a board member of the Butler Museum of Art. Once he conjured the vision of all those Rockwells hanging on the walls of the Howland venue, he never let it go. A soft-spoken gentleman, he dove quietly into a plan to get the collection out of storage and into the Trumbull branch where they could be a unique and welcome attraction for the area.
Gold was obviously successful, but the journey between the inception of his quest and the collection’s arrival in early 2020 was a very bumpy ride indeed.
Gold skillfully navigated the negotiations. He touted the facility’s unique accessibility—within a day’s drive for more than fifty percent of Americans. Gold had support from the Ohio Statehouse. In addition, the collection would serve as a dazzling centerpiece in a smaller venue. He won over the BSA and went to share the good news with the rest of the Butler’s board, which then approved a resolution to accept the collection in September 2018. Shipping and liability insurance would be the Butler’s responsibility; BSA would retain ownership of the works.
Then in December 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that BSA was considering filing for bankruptcy in the wake of a troubling sexual abuse scandal. The news was widely reported and soon reached the ears of Butler’s board of trustees. It didn’t sit well. Citing uncertainty over the future of an art collection, in January 2019 the trustees tabled the decision to steward the works.
The controversial move would play out publicly amid the pages of local publications such as the Tribune Chronicle and Business Journal.
In the days following the vote, Foundation Medici Director and former Butler board member John Anderson “strongly rebuked” the move as censorship and called it an “asinine action.” Later in a written statement he characterized the relationship as “stepchild treatment by the Butler of the Howland branch.”
The Butler’s Executive Director Louis Zona shot back, “In our years of operation, well over 100 high-quality exhibitions by artists from around the world have been presented in that beautiful Trumbull County space.” Even Jeffrey Draime, son of Foundation Medici founder Max Draime who died in 2006, felt the need to issue a statement in which he clearly outlined his family’s support for the Butler and said he was “disheartened” by the heated dispute.
By June 2019, Foundation Medici notified the Butler that its contract with the museum would be terminated in six months. To further up the ante, an anonymous donor came forth just days after that announcement and pledged $1 million to the Foundation Medici if the museum was successful in its bid to gain custody of the BSA collection, including the Rockwells.
In November 2019, the Butler pulled its art from the East Market Street location. The massive 1988 bronze Gregory Perillo statue of a cowboy atop a bunking bronco rode again, but this time on a flatbed trailer. The Soulages mural stayed in place in the unique gallery designed specifically for its display, but was soon to be in litigation regarding ownership rights. The location officially closed in December 2019, but the acrimony continued. Anderson further disparaged the Butler management of the branch, calling the attendance “atrocious” and the curatorial offerings “recycled.”
Amid the tumult of succession, the BSA informed Gold that the organization had reversed its decision and would keep the collection in storage. The local attorney wasn’t going to give up that easily.
“If you know you’re right and the answer is ‘no,’ find a way to ‘yes,’” says Gold, noting the possibilities of a partnership with Anderson. “John and I worked together. It was a mutual relationship to make this work. He’s got the museum. He’s got the money. I’ve got the connections,” he recalls.
“I’m going to try one more letter,” he told Anderson in September 2019. “I’ll make this happen.” Gold pauses before noting, “And I did.”
The Boy Scouts of America art collection arrived in Howland Township on January 31, 2020.
Walking amid all those Rockwells brims with complexity. The beloved artist’s skill is simply breathtaking. The subject matter sparkles with energy, but it is also very specific and almost exclusively white and male.
“While it’s a big important thing, it’s only a sliver of Rockwell’s entire opus,” notes Michael Wolf, founder and director of Wolfs, an extensive art gallery located in Beachwood. “I know some great art historian would love to talk about this dilemma. Because it really is a dilemma. It’s an embarrassment of riches in one way and it’s a very challenging responsibility in another.”
Like everything else, the Medici had its fits and starts with opening amid the pandemic, but throughout the response has been enthusiastic. Scouts have traveled near and far to take in the display. Staff had to deal with socially distancing more than 75 scouts that converged on the museum on one November Saturday last year. Groups have come from across Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as New York and even Utah. Queries about visiting have come all the way from Alaska and Hawaii.
“The response has been crazy,” notes Associate Director Katelyn Amendolara-Russo, who is also registered as a counselor for the Scout’s Art merit badge. Those looking to earn one can take a short course with her in order to meet some of the requirements to that end. “We are really happy with the attention it has received.”
Nonetheless, the specter of the scandal looms. The BSA filed for bankruptcy in February 2020, and in November it announced more than 95,000 people filed sex-abuse claims against the organization.
Has the storm reached Howland Township?
“No one has ever come in and voiced any negative reaction to the BSA collection,” says Amendolara-Russo. “I think they look at it as the iconic Norman Rockwell on display,” she adds. “I was overwhelmed by how positive the response has been since the show has been up, which is nice.”
Nonetheless, the artwork is a nonessential asset and could be divested by the BSA at any time. Even so, both Gold and Amendolara-Russo feel the collection will be around for a while.
“I see them staying for a few more years,” she says. “I hope they don’t get sold off, but it’s a possibility and we’re aware of that.”
Looking forward, Amendolara-Russo plans to expand the Medici’s offerings to international artists and keep the facility free and open to all. Until then, Norman Rockwell will be stealing the show.
“The messages Norman Rockwell puts in each painting are a good reminder of how great America was at the time he painted them, with good morals, good values, good citizenship, and patriotism.”