Intermuseum Conservation Association

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Overview/Mission[edit | edit source]

Background of the Institution[edit | edit source]

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History of the Laboratory/Studio[edit | edit source]

This essay was written by Rebecca Rushfield in 2003 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the ICA. The content came from interviews with former staff and students.

Although many people have credited Richard D. (Dick) Buck with the creation of the idea of the regional conservation center, Buck himself always gave credit to a group of Midwestern museum directors, none of whom had the resources to open a conservation laboratory in his own museum. Early in 1951, these directors—Charles Parkhurst of the Allen Memorial art Museum, Edgar Schenck of the Albright Knox gallery, Lee Malone of the Columbus Gallery of Fine arts, Wilbur Peat of the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, and Otto Wittman of the Toledo Museum of Art—began to talk about starting a cooperative laboratory for their institutions. In the spring of that year, the directors asked Buck, then on the staff of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University to visit their museums, staying four or five days at each, and prepare a survey of the condition of the collections.

In the fall of 1951, Buck returned to the museums, visiting the Dayton Art Institute in place of the Toledo Museum. In December, Buck and the directors met in Buffalo and worked out a plan for a laboratory. Each director pledged $500 from his discretionary funds. Parkhurst agreed to give $3,000 of the Allen Art Museum’s funds for equipment and a space for the lab in its premises. Buck, whose position at the Fogg was coming to an end due to bud get cutbacks, came out to Oberlin to run the laboratory.

On February 4, 1953, the Intermuseum Conservation Association (“ICA”) was incorporated as a not-for-profit institution with the charge to improve and disseminate knowledge of conservation, investigate materials and equipment, and conduct studies and tests in order to develop conservation methods, coordinate and assist in carrying out conservation programs of members, and maintain a lab and staff.

Not long after the ICA began its operations, Dr. Robert Feller who was two and a half hours away at the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, but who became a frequent visitor to the ICA, suggested to Dick Buck that he hold a conference in honor of the opening of his lab. Together they planned the spring 1957 “Seminar on Resinous Surface Coatings” from which came the seminal 1959 book, “On Picture Varnishes and Their Solvents”. ( A second symposium on varnishes, “Varnishes, Coatings for Paintings: New Research” was organized by ICA Director Lisa Mibach on the occasion of the ICA’s 35th anniversary.)

As the ICA grew, the need for trained staff grew. For a short period of time, Oberlin College had offered an undergraduate manor in conservation—it was listed in the catalogue for the 1959-1960 academic year. The program consisted of courses in chemistry, art history, studio art, and petrology, as well as four two-semester courses in conservation. The major was seen as preparation for graduate studies at the New York University Conservation Center rather than as a terminal training program, and students were only rarely allowed into the lab to see conservators at work. The laboratory had taken on a few interns who had already received basic training and who were to work as junior staff members participating in normal routines under supervision. Among them were Norman Muller, Masako Saito (later Masako Koyano) and Gerald R. Hoepfner. However, there were not enough of them to deal with the growing demands of the member institutions.

In an ICA Planning Meeting held on April 5, 1969, a plan was drafted for a training program to be run by the ICA in conjunction with Oberlin College. Early in 1970, the Ford Foundation awarded the ICA a grant to set up a training program, providing the funds to run it for nine years allowing three classes of students to complete their studies . The first class of three students entered in the fall of 1970 and was to complete its studies in the spring of 1973. The second class entered in the fall of 1971 and the third in the fall of 1972. In 1973, the Mellon Foundation stepped in and provided funding for two additional classes and for the construction of permanent and adequate lab space.

The original ICA lab was a room in the basement of the Allen Art Museum Building which was not large enough to accommodate the training program students. They were given a space behind the stage of the building’s auditorium. The first students to arrive—Stuart Greenspan, Paul Himmelstein, and Barbara Kaiser—found an empty room. They were told to design, furnish, and equip the lab themselves. This was accomplished by the end of that year.

Students came to the ICA program knowing that they were going to become paintings conservators. When he or she arrived, each first year student was assigned to work on over the course of the year a painting on canvas and a painting on a solid support, all of them belonging to member institutions. During that first year, students were also required to recreate old master paintings, learning the materials and techniques of early Italian, Northern, and later Italian painters. A course in conservation science taught by Abe Rosenthal and special short courses in subjects like microscopy (this one was taught by John Gettens) filled out the program that year. It was an intense program and students were expected to work long hours. So they would not have to lose study time at jobs, students were provided with stipends. During the second year, the students worked full time in the lab on paintings, but were free to spend as much time as needed on treatments. By the third year, students were expected to keep the time they spent on treatments in line with estimates.

Because ICA member institutions were directly affected by the quality of students in the program, their representatives were involved in the interview and selection process. The ICA interview has been described by people who went through it as a scary one. At least eight people were on the interview panel and the potential student was asked on the spot to identify art works according to their style and to comment on their conservation needs.

The first years of the ICA training program were not easy ones for the institution as the staff had to adjust to the demands of supervising students while keeping up with their own conservation work. In 1973, Marigene Butler was hired to head the lab, allowing Dick Buck to focus his energies on the training program. In 1974 when Buck left the ICA, the students felt abandoned. Over a pot luck dinner, they wrote up a list of demands to be presented to Butler and the program’s Board. They designed a protest tee-shirt bearing a take-off of the “Black Power Salute” of the 1960s—in the student shirt, the raised fist holds a paint brush. The protest produced results. Del Spurlock, the lab’s Technical Assistant, a highly talented man who had worked with Dick Buck on the development of his panel painting treatments and who had befriended the students, holding a regular poker game with several of them, was officially directed to work with them.

Oberlin is a small town, a college town, and a mid-Western town. That made it a desirable place to live and work for some students and a place to escape from as quickly as possible for others. Those used to life in a large city and those without partners had the hardest adjustments. Because the students and interns were considerably older than the general population of students at the college, they looked to each other for after hours companionship. Barbara Kaiser, Paul Himmelstein, and Marianne Ainsworth formed a chamber music group. Students prepared gourmet feasts in their homes for the many visiting lecturers and dignitaries, trying to outdo each other with their lavishness. Some took advantage of the many performances staged at the college or went to the local movie theater which featured programs like the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Festival of the summer of 1985. Because student meetings were held at 8:00am and people spent long hours in the lab, often coming back at night to continue ICA work or to use the shop to build furniture for their homes, at some point everyone came to need a change of venue. Inspection trips to member institutions served this purpose as well as fulfilled the ICA’s mandate to coordinate and assist in carrying out the conservation programs of member institutions.

When the ICA was young and had a limited number of members and the members themselves had no conservation staff of their own, inspection trips were an annual affair. The same ICA staff members would return each year to an institution, checking on the condition of works and doing minor first aid treatments. Students would accompany staff members, leaving only a skeleton crew behind at the lab. They travelled with three Samsonite suitcases which were filled with all of the supplies needed during a site visit. It was the responsibility of each and every person at the ICA to make sure that the cases were always ready to go.

Over the course of the four or five days spent at a member museum, the ICA staff would look at more than two hundred painting, making recommendations about treatment priorities. Once back at the lab, the staff devoted a great deal of time to writing up reports from the trip including expense reports which were carefully scrutinized by Ruth Spitler, the longtime secretary who had been hired in the early years by Dick Buck and who retired only in 1980.

On site visits and in the lab, ICA staff members examined and treated works of the finest quality as its member museums had outstanding collections. The philosophy of the lab was(and is) that a conservator performs a complete treatment and does not specialize in one small aspect of conservation. This offered each staff member the opportunity and the freedom to think through a treatment and decide which materials and techniques were appropriate for that specific work of art regardless of which were currently popular. It also allowed staff members to produce research studies on topics like the working methods and materials of Hans Hofmann (Carolyn Tallent) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (Mark Bockrath and Barbara Buckley), developments in contact linings (Paul Haner and Christine Huerman), synthetic painting media (Robert Lodge) and differences between literary descriptions and actual painting techniques used by icon painters (Aella Diamantopoulos).

In the early 1980s, the ICA was fortunate to have on its administrative staff, Ricardo Baretto, an art historian who spent a portion of his time doing research for the conservators on staff. The wealth of data on treatment times amassed by the ICA over decades was used by the Arts Management Institute of Case Western University in the late 1980s to develop a computer program for calculating treatment time estimates.

In addition to producing important research on materials and treatments, the ICA was an innovator in the documentation of treatments. From the first days of the lab, Dick Buck set a standard for detailed written reports of examinations and treatments. He also began a project of filming treatments using a Bell and Howell camera and 16mm film. When those silent films were shown, Buck provided the narration. Over the years, the ICA has upgraded its technology, but has continued to use films as both documents and teaching tools.

The closing of the ICA training program in 1977 did not mean the end of its commitment to education. The ICA shifted its focus to the education of the staff of its member institutions. To that end, it developed workshops on collection storage, “naked eye” examination of works of art, matting and hinging of works of art, disaster prevention and recovery, conservation assessments, handling of works of art in transit, and the care of specific collections including photographs, textile, and works of art on paper.

Over its fifty year history, the ICA has experienced growing pains and has reevaluated its operations. It has considered becoming part of a larger institution—in 1970, it considered and rejected the opportunity to join Case Western University. It has seen and responded to the need to expand its focus to encompass the treatment of photographs, objects, and textiles. It has weighed the pros and cons of remaining in Oberlin and, in March 2003, moved to its present home in Cleveland. Foremost, as more museums have established their own conservation departments, as more private conservators have set up practice in the region, and as smaller member museums with static collections have come to require fewer treatment, the ICA continues to assess the purpose, rationale, and intended clientele of the regional center. While the regional center has not become, as in Dick Buck’s vision, a hub—a technical research and training center surrounded by member museum labs each focusing on a specific kind of treatment—it remains a unique part of the conservation landscape.

Staff History[edit | edit source]

Conservators[edit | edit source]

Lab Assistants[edit | edit source]

Conservation Interns[edit | edit source]

Conservation Volunteers[edit | edit source]

Facilities[edit | edit source]

Analytical Equipment[edit | edit source]

Pest Eradication Equipment[edit | edit source]

Photo-documentation Equipment[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Further Reading & Viewing[edit | edit source]

Social Media[edit | edit source]

Articles by Staff[edit | edit source]

Interviews & Media Appearances[edit | edit source]

External Links[edit | edit source]

Support[edit | edit source]

Overview/Mission Background of the Institution Milestones Dimensions History of the Laboratory/Studio Staff History Conservators Lab Assistants Conservation Interns Conservation Volunteers Facilities Analytical Equipment Pest Eradication Equipment Photo-documentation Equipment References Further Reading & Viewing Social Media Articles by Staff Interviews & Media Appearances External Links Support