cleveland's intermuseum conservation assn breathes new life into old treasures

Step inside the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) in Ohio City and you'll discover a beguiling cast of characters.

A lithe snake dancer, frozen in a bronze lunge, seduces from every angle as she awaits repair to her broken limb. She holds court over Mark Erdmann's bench, supervising while the Associate Objects Conservator hunches over a ragged chunk of mosaic flooring recovered from Ancient Antioch.

In another corner, Textile Conservator Jane Hammond commiserates with the ghost of a Union soldier as she considers his damaged cape, knit by his lover to shield him from the cold Civil War battlefields.

In the background, dizzying calliope music emanates from the remnants of a 1919 Coney Island carousel. Round and round she goes, Painting Conservator Wendy Partridge restores the painted chariots back to their original splendor.

Every day, the conservators at the Detroit Avenue studio work to breathe life back into decades and centuries old art and artifacts. Each is a master craftsman, artist, scholar and gentle caregiver. In return for the attention those items receive, each offers up a story -- or creates its own.

"Nobody looks as closely at paintings as we do," says Senior Painting Conservator Andrea Chevalier as she describes her work on a 1540 portrait of Cleopatra. Painted by Giampietrino, a student of Leonardo da Vinci, the nubile subject is at once coy and comely despite her advanced age. She even has a secret: Chevalier points out the faint outline of an angel's halo and a fleck of gold paint, clues to the painting beneath the one she's restoring.

"The more you work on stuff," she says, "the more you learn."

Walking among these slices of art and history and those who nurture them is breathtaking, perhaps owing to the contrasting points of view. The layman thrills before the likes of Harry Houdini's personal diary or Rutherford Hayes' chair, while the conservators talk about dyes, varnishes and tools.

"I picture the original worksite," says Erdmann as he meticulously cleans a snarling mosaic satyr. He points to the underside of the ancient floor tile: "Look at the flatness and thickness of the underlying concrete." In an instant, Erdmann forms a kinship with the tradesman who installed the floor some 1,800 years ago on the other side of the world.

These intangible connections between past and present embody the magic of the ICA.

The ICA has a history of it's own that continues to unfold. Founded in 1952, the organization is the nation's oldest nonprofit art conservation center. The ICA called Oberlin College home for years, before relocating in 2003 to Cleveland.

"We very much wanted to be engaged in Cleveland's cultural community, get involved in the discourse, and make a significant contribution," says Executive Director Albert Albano, adding that the organization also needed a larger home.

In addition to the expansive work areas, the facility boasts a 41,000-cubic-foot climate-controlled art storage area. Once home to the Vitrolite Glass company, the historic building's unique storefront space features the sleek pigmented glass now known as vitrolite. When fully restored, the space will be used as a public meeting area.

"This was the original reception space and we want to use it similarly for our face to the community," Albano says. Future expansion includes a classroom and workshop area to facilitate educational programming. The ICA staff happily welcomes visitors from the community and offers free art consultations. Both are by appointment.

The ICA caters to private collectors, colleges and public museums. Giampietrino's "Cleopatra" is part of Oberlin's collection, while the Antioch mosaics are slated for installation at Bowling Green State University's new Wolfe Center for the Arts. Other high-profile clients include MOCA Cleveland, Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Akron Art Museum.

In addition to its far-flung affiliations, ICA maintains strong ties with Cleveland. The organization recently rescued a number of depression-era murals from the now-demolished Valleyview Homes, one of the country's first public housing projects. One of those murals found its way to Cleveland State University's new student center. Another is slated for installation at the new Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority administration building.

In addition to the murals, Valleyview was dotted with concrete play sculptures -- inviting frogs, squirrels, walruses and bears for kids to clamber upon. Time and weather had reduced them to formless lumps. Relying on newspaper clippings from Case Western Reserve University's research library, ICA recast reproductions of the original sculptures. Some of those animals will be flying high as part of the Fulton Road Bridge Restoration.

Albano credits successes such as these to ICA's constant collaboration with local universities, organizations and nonprofits.

"It's an amazingly successful partnership if all these organizations in Cleveland believe in the value of preserving our cultural heritage," he says.

"Cleveland always gets a bad rap. But we really work together to productively benefit our citizens, our people."

Photography by Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 & 2: Executive Director Albert Albano with the Genesis window from the Cranbrook Art Museum in Detroit, designed by Wilhelm Rupprecht and produced in 1923
- Photo 3: Anne Hinebaugh works on a W. LeRoy Flint Mural
- Photo 4: Senior Painting Conservator Andrea Chevalier works on a 1540 portrait of Cleopatra
- Photo 5: Noel Ward works on a Valleyview concrete play sculpture
- Photo 6:  Mosaic Tile From Ancient Antioch
- Photo 7: 19th Century Trompe-L'Oeil style painting

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.
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