Article by Steven Litt
Cleveland almost certainly won’t get a new museum dedicated to the work of Viktor Schreckengost, the late, great Cleveland industrial designer who left his imprint on everything from trucks to lawn chairs, dinnerware and children’s toys in the middle years of the 20th century.
But Schreckengost’s heirs, Cleveland State University and a host of local arts leaders have made significant progress in a complex discussion over what to do with a massive hoard of drawings, paintings, ceramics, photographs, posters, reproductions and even canceled checks held in the university’s Rhodes Tower since 2010.
The likely course is that the materials how stored by the university would be distributed to appropriate non-profit cultural and educational organizations in Cleveland once a formal assessment of quality, condition and historical significance is completed.
Most important, the Schreckengost family has agreed in principal to donate those materials to try to preserve them in bulk, or in large chunks, rather than to see them scattered through sales.
“I’m absolutely delighted, but also relieved,” Edward Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at CSU, said Thursday, describing the latest negotiations over the Schreckengost legacy.
“We were looking at a cross between a Gordian knot and a fur ball,” he said.
Gene Schreckengost, the designer’s widow, said, “I’m delighted that there’s movement,” over the fate of the materials in Rhodes Tower.
Speaking via phone from Milwaukee, where she now lives, she said that she and family member may choose to keep selected artworks now stored at CSU, “but there’s so much and more than we could ever use and hang on our walls. I think it needs to go to a not for profit so they can seek funding for support and they can’t do that if it belongs to us.” In 2010, at the university’s invitation, the Schreckengost family moved hundreds of boxes of ceramics, artworks, business records and other materials into Rhodes Tower for safekeeping.
The family, which has retained ownership of the material to this day, intended to use Rhodes Tower as a business incubator from which they hoped to launch a new company to revive and re-commercialize Schreckengost’s classic dinnerware and ceramics.
In theory, profits from sales of Schreckengost products would have funded a museum dedicated to his work. And Hill saw the Schreckengost museum as a potential anchor for a “District of Design,” he hoped to establish near Playhouse Square to promote Northeast Ohio product designers.
To promote the museum and to help the family, Hill became the head of a small foundation whose mission was to raise awareness of the designer’s work.
But the family’s efforts to revive Schreckengost’s designs failed, and the museum, intended to begin life in an exhibit space in the Tower Press Building at East 19th Street and Superior Avenue, never opened.
Meanwhile, the collections stored in Rhodes Tower fell into limbo. An article in The Plain Dealer in July highlighted the dilemma.
Since then, the university reorganized, tidied and consolidated the storage areas. The Schreckengost materials now occupy 11 rooms, instead of the 17 rooms through which they sprawled. And the university has tightened security.
A visit to the storage areas on Thursday showed that their condition had improved markedly since July, when numerous boxes of ceramics and packing materials were strewn across worktables, and stacks of Schreckengost drawings were lying atop tables, gathering dust.
To jump start a new community discussion about the future of the Schreckengost legacy, Hill convened members of nine cultural and educational organizations in Cleveland, on Sept. 11, along with members of the Schreckengost family, to explore options.
Those present included representatives of CSU, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Art, ArtNEO, ICA Art Conservation, the Ingenuity Festival, the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Lakewood Rangers Education Foundation and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture.
Several family friends attended the meeting, along with Gene Schreckengost, 79, and two of her sons from a previous marriage, David and Doug Nowacek.
The attendees now consider themselves part of an informal steering group dedicated to preserving Schreckengost’s memory, Hill said. Representatives of the Cleveland and Gund foundations are monitoring the discussions and offering advice, he said.
He said that members of the cultural organizations agreed to apply for grants to pay for the assessment and conservation of the materials in Rhodes Tower, and to coordinate the distribution of those materials to appropriate non-profit organizations.
The family also agreed to allow university librarians to search the storage areas for archival material that would be appropriate to add to the archival collection Gene Schreckengost has already donated to the university’s Michael Schwartz Library.
A roomful of catalogues from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 2000 retrospective exhibition on Schreckengost will be donated to the Cleveland Institute of Art, which plans to distribute them as graduation gifts for students. Schreckengost founded the industrial design program at the art college in 1931.
Hill said that a detailed assessment of the materials in Rhodes Tower would be based in part on a tax appraisal performed in 2008 after Schreckengost’s death by the Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland. But he said that financial values would be removed from the appraisal to avoid confusing monetary and historical or artistic valuation.
He also said that the Schreckengost heirs would retain intellectual property rights to any materials they ultimately donate to non-profit cultural organizations in Cleveland.
Instead of a freestanding museum, Hill said the informal steering group wants to explore the idea of an industrial design collection in Cleveland that could be based in a number of institutions, and connected through web-based technology.
But before that happens, the steering group will explore options for a secure, climate-controlled place in which to temporarily store the materials now held in Rhodes tower.
The group agreed to meet again in October to push their agenda forward.
“People came out happy,” Hill said.