Confession time: I have lived in the Dayton area for more than 25 years and have never taken a full tour of the Dayton Art Institute. No, seriously. I have been to the Institute for meetings and a few events—and of course for Oktoberfest—but have never walked through an exhibit.

I have always intended to at some point. On the occasions I have attended events I walk away thinking, “Someday, I need to actually walk through this beautiful museum and learn more about all of the treasures kept here.” Like so many of us, I go back to my crazy life and forget the promise until the next time I am driving by on Interstate 75 and think, “One of these days…”

As the Arts & Culture writer for this publication it is embarrassing to admit to this lack of cultural exploration, although I don’t think I am alone. I have a feeling lots of our readers are in the same position. We live in this great city and we hear and read about all of the fantastic access we have to the arts, especially for a city our size. However, we never find the time to see and experience it.

So a few Sundays ago I made a point of spending an afternoon getting to know our fantastic gem—Dayton Art Institute—and it did not disappoint.

What’s the big deal

Overlooking downtown Dayton and easily recognizable with its red tile roof, the Dayton Art Institute was founded in 1919 by several of Dayton’s most prominent citizens, including Orville Wright and the Patterson family.

Designed by architect Edward B. Green, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According the Dayton Art Institute website, the museum’s collection spans 5,000 years of art history with about 1,000 pieces of the museum’s permanent collection on display at any given time.

Divided into three main wings of European art, American art and Asian art, the museum also features galleries devoted to African art, oceanic art, pre-Columbian art, Native American art and glass. There are also beautiful sculptures to explore outside on the grounds of the museum.

What to see

In all the years I talked about going to the museum, the sheer size of it seemed overwhelming. Combined with what I believed to be limited skills for “analyzing” art and a lack of understanding how judge the important influence of an artist, I was intimidated. What if I didn’t like some of the pieces I saw? Isn’t every piece in the collection a masterpiece? 

After all, why else would it be included?

Therefore, if I didn’t like them all, I would prove I didn’t know what I was doing and wasting my time. I decided to reach out and ask some friends what were the exhibits that moved them.

Where to begin

My friend Karen suggested I start with Sandy Skoglund’s Shimmering Madness located in The Lange Family Experiencenter. This can’t-miss exhibit includes two jellybean-covered mannequins in dance-like poses on a jellybean-covered floor. What’s not to love? I can see why kids and families love the center. It gives them a place to see art as more than a painting on the wall and teaches them to find it in the world around them—like in a pile of jelllybeans.

Kelly Basinger of Cincinnati grew up in Dayton and remembers going to the museum “...just to hang out and sketch and think…” Her favorites to visit were always “Purple Leaves” by Georgia O’Keeffe and “Song of the Nightingale” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, two exquisitely detailed and beautiful paintings.

“The Back of the Storm” by April Gornik is a must-see painting for my friend Meredith Leslie as it is her son’s favorite. As an artist himself, he

never misses it on every visit and I have to say I agree. It is a breathtaking piece.

My journey

I managed to work my way through all of the exhibits in an afternoon. What I found were some incredibly amazing pieces, mixed in with others I didn’t understand and a fair amount of ones that while I could appreciate their beauty and artistry I wouldn’t necessarily want to put them in my house.

Some of the art I really enjoyed included “Two Faces” by Richard Stankiewicz in which he uses chain link, pipe fittings and steel plate to resemble two faces. I also loved “Ovala Marea” by Therman Statom which used blownglass fragments and painted mixed media in a staggering 12-foot-tall piece. But my favorite was “Lost and Found” by Alison Saar in which she uses simple materials to weave together two figures by the hair. The sculpture made me stop in my tracks and wonder at how it was made and what it meant.

What I quickly discerned in my exploration of the wings of the museum collection is that art appreciation is an independent sport. The expectation of a museum like Dayton Art Institute is not that the patrons who come through its doors will love every piece of art on display. The goal is to have a varied enough collection to insure that everyone who comes in will find a favorite piece, or two, or three. Even more, that each one will find the wonder of art and creation and imagination to take with them.

The Dayton Art Institute is open Wednesday through Sunday and is free, but will accept donations. You can find more about special upcoming exhibits and current pieces on display at Get out and explore this gem of our city.

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