Dayton’s Holy Family

“If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that,” President Obama declared in 2012.  But chances are you bought that, especially if you are a Midwestern entrepreneur and the product is Renaissance art.  The coastal stereotype of the Midwest as a cultural backwater is dispelled by museums in industrial towns like Detroit, Toledo, and Dayton.  Here, artistic relevance is measured in terms of half a millennium, not Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes.

We’ve traveled hundreds of miles to view The Holy Family With a Donor in a Landscape, by Pier Francesco Bissolo (1470-1554), a Renaissance oil on wood panel ensconced at the Dayton Art Institute.  My first visit to Dayton, in the mid-1970’s, elicited thoughts of industrialist Walter Chrysler.  The blue-and-white Chrysler Pentastar logo atop the Airtemp Division was visible from I-75, though there was no marker explaining Dayton’s relationship with the Manhattan skyscraper that Chrysler built for his children.  Chrysler became interested in air conditioning while his namesake skyscraper was being built (1928-30).  Airtemp moved to a revamped Dayton Maxwell plant in 1936, and, as a history of Chrysler declares, “quickly became an engineering leader in this newly emerging industry.”  In 1937, Airtemp’s engineers “invented capacity regulators, which helped the air-conditioning...

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