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For the 21st Century and Beyond

Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute is nearing the end of a project adding almost 100,000 square feet to its campus, and fundamentally changing its relationship to the art world—and the landscape

by Shawn Stone on July 3, 2014


The Clark Art Institute selected Tadao Ando as project architect for its transformative, decade-long expansion because of his “ability to weave architecture into the natural environment.”

On a recent tour of the Clark, which reopens to the public on Independence Day, landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand said that all of Ando’s initial studies for the campus expansion featured “a big sheet of water. At that moment, we all sort of knew what our charge would be.”

The Clark Center and reflecting pool, Photo by Tucker Bair

The result is a series of reflecting pools over a one-acre site with an operational volume of, oh, 280,000-plus gallons of water. But you don’t see any water when you drive up to the new entrance to the Clark. You don’t know anything about the 10,000-gallon tank under the pools; or the sand filters and the “ozonator,” the “most expensive and least intrusive” filtration system available; and you have no idea that the drainage system will be able to handle a 100-year storm “with ease.” If you were a regular visitor to the “old” Clark, you  might have trouble picturing where the parking lots and old maintanence building were. Instead, after making it to the top of a driveway dominated by the hills beyond the museum, you walk along a blank, dark wall to the formal entrance of the new visitor’s center.

This is Ando’s art: He takes the spectacular view of nature away, Hilderbrand said, and then gives it back to you. Where previously you entered the museum “unceremoniously,” Ando’s concept transforms the process of entering the “new” Clark into a dramatic experience. For when you walk through the entrance into the new complex, Ando gives you back the Berkshire Hills—and more.

Friday (June 27) was press day at the Clark. Upon arrival, the first people you saw were the landscape gardeners putting the finishing touches on the entrance grounds; the first thing you smelled was fresh asphalt. You could feel sense of urgency as workers went about putting the finishing touches on this phase of the massive project. (The Manton Research Center will be finished in Spring 2015.) But after you picked up your badge and press kit and walked along the wall to the new visitor’s center—named the Clark Center—and through to the outside reflecting pool, it produced the effect desired by architect Ando and his team: awe.

With the reflecting pool and the grounds beyond, the analytical meets the pastoral to energizing effect. The sleek geometry of the pool and museum grounds give way to a 19th-century pastoral tableau, featuring the stream cutting through the property, the quaint bridge over the stream and the hill beyond, where cows graze. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The museum got what they wanted, and visitors will have an entirely new experience.

When you enter the visitor’s center—after you’re done being wowed by the scenery—take a left and you’re in the reception area, which leads to the museum shop and the corridor to the original building. Turn right and you’re in a space that can be used, in the summer, as gallery space, and, in the winter, as conference/educational space. Right now, it’s a gallery and is hosting Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai Museum. (They are spectacular.) In the winter, they’ll remove the screens shading the exhibit from the sun on the reflecting pool side, and use it for something else.

Most of the building is below grade. Downstairs from the reception area you’ll find the new café, as well the two new gallery spaces. (The new physical plant is also underground.) One gallery is a large rectangle, and the other is a small triangle. On Friday, these spaces were being prepped for the big Saturday night gala with Gov. Deval Patrick, but you could get the idea of what their possibilities were.

The wide variety of media represented, from small Western Massachusetts newspapers and web publications to ArtForum, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Vanity Fair and a variety of web-based art “magazines,” reflect the fact that the Clark is as important internationally as it is regionally. While a reporter for New England Public Radio interviewed one official by the entrance, a crew from the Japanese TV network NHK followed architect Ando and his posse alongside the reflecting pool.

After the broadcast media did their thing, it was time for lunch—which was a swell spread, and catnip to journalists wherever they’re from—and opening remarks.

Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark Art Institute since 1994, got right to the heart of the matter. He spoke of the changes to the site, and noted that if anyone was interested in a detailed chronicle of these changes, it could be provided.

But why would anyone want that?

“Who cares?” Conforti asked. “Forget history.”

In total, including the Stone Hill Center, which opened in 2008, they’ve added 13,000 square feet of gallery space. By dramatically expanding the museum’s physical area, they’ve dramatically expanded their mission. To wit: In August, the Clark will host Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975. This will feature iconic works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns and other mid-century titans. The limitations of the older galleries would have made a traveling exhibit like this impossible; the original loading dock was so constrained that other museums would not loan certain works to the Clark. This kind of exhibit is also worlds away from the kind of art founder Sterling Clark collected and loved.

People who love the Clark for what it has been for half a century want to know: Is the original part of the museum still the same?

As one of the curators explained after a press tour entered the old museum, “Things are very much the same, but are greatly improved.”

The renovation resulted in an increase of 2,210 square feet in gallery space; all existing galleries were renovated. There’s new lighting, new wall colors (eight colors in all; ask nicely and they’ll provide you the names), new climate control systems, new furniture—and a new entrance.

John Singer Sargent's Fumee d'ambre gris (1880), Courtesy of the Clark Art Institute

As noted before, you follow a corridor from the Clark Center to the original museum building.

When the tour entered the new entrance to the old museum, project architect Annabelle Selldorf pointed out, “You are now entering the building from the opposite side where you used to enter.”

After experiencing the shock of the new, stepping back into the old building has the same energizing effect as is produced by the new landscape architecture meeting the pastoral hillside. Suddenly, you’re at the turn of the last century with the exquisite seascapes of Winslow Homer. Then you walk around to the other side of the wall dividing this first gallery, and you’re immersed in works by George Inness. Keep going, and larger, familiar-but-altered rooms open up and—boom—you’re overwhelmed by the large-scale works of those French impressionist masters who are, still, household names.

So, yes, the Clark is still the Clark, and Sterling Clark’s vision is still intact. But it will be interesting to see where his institutional heirs direct their vision, so strongly displayed in the “new” Clark Art Institute.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.) will reopen on Friday (July 4). For complete info on exhibits and events, visit clarkart.edu.