Art Matters

The Clark Art Institute Acquires a New Identity

by David Masello

Reed Hilderbrand Associates, Reflecting Pool, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

There are many tense situations to be found lining the corridors and galleries of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Will that swollen, mottled boa constrictor coiling itself around the body of a young boy in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer (1879) be, indeed, charmed by the flute player, or coaxed to choke? What does that message reveal that a family is intently reading in Martin Drölling’s The Letter (1816), and is there a chance that the two greenish, limp bodies being dragged from the roiling ocean in Winslow Homer’s The Undertow (1886) are still alive? The tensest moment of all, however, one that has consumed the institution in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for the last fourteen years, has just been successfully resolved. The ending— which is actually a beginning—is a happy one. It is a scene the public can now view and partake in. 

Starting in 2001, a plan was announced, under the supervision of Michael Conforti, who continues in his role as the Clark’s director, to transform the campus of the museum—in a metaphorical sense, to create an entirely new canvas for the some 9,000 pieces of art in its permanent holdings. But would this $145 million change threaten to undo the intimacy of the museum that had characterized it for more than half a century and, in so doing, make the Clark into an institution more appropriate to a big city? Was the expansion itself a violation of the very vision of its namesake founder, whose goal was to showcase the art he had amassed in a building he had commissioned? Or would the project propel the Clark into a new era of museum-going, where visitors demand visual and architectural experiences beyond the art? Was it really possible to further marry the museum to its northern Berkshires setting, somehow making the built and the natural mutually dependent? 

Until now, the Clark used to be just two distinct, but linked buildings—the original white-marble, neoclassical 1955 museum structure, and another, Brutalist-style granite one, designed by Pietro Belluschi in 1973. Back in 2001, plans were issued to “further advance the Clark’s dual mission as both an art museum and a center for research and higher education,” says Conforti. To accomplish this general goal, the new vision involved having the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando fashion a 42,600-square-foot Visitor Center, complete with galleries, a restaurant, retail space and conference rooms, along with renovating and reorienting the galleries of the original structure, transforming the Belluschi structure (now known as the Manton Research Center) into something more inviting and serving a different function, and adding a new building atop Stone Hill for temporary exhibitions (what is now the Lunder Center at Stone Hill). 

The plan was never just about the built environment. The landscape architecture firm of Reed Hilderbrand was hired, too, to configure miles of additional walking trails through the bucolic 140-acre museum campus, plant some 1,000 native-species trees, and add, among other elements, an acre-sized reflecting pond—one so large and contemplative that even Narcissus would have been lulled by it (as he is seen to be doing in a bas-relief scene in a pair of eighteenth-century English silver wall sconces in the museum’s collection). Last July, the bulk of the completed project was opened to the public, with festivities marked by an extravagant fireworks display made all the more dramatic by the echo-chamber topography of the surrounding Berkshire hills. 

While the permanent collection of the Clark is immediately graspable—an enviable assortment of European and American paintings, sculpture and decorative arts assembled by its founder, Robert Sterling Clark, in the early part of the twentieth century—the campus as an architectural statement had not exactly been a pretty picture. Until now, its two chief buildings were a mismatch from the start—what architecture critic Paul Goldberger has characterized as “a pair of not entirely distinguished buildings locked in a kind of awkward marriage.” For decades, visitors had entered through the Belluschi structure and paid their admission there, whereupon they would traverse an austere concrete hallway that felt more like a catacomb haunted by spirits than the entryway to a living, breathing encyclopedic art collection in the original building. With artists like Manet and Dürer, Sargent and Constable, Piero della Francesca and Rubens, Picasso and Navez so prominent in the collection, along with vitrines filled with silver and decorative objects, the gloom cast by the architecture, fortunately, was immediately offset by the bright glory filling the galleries. 

Upon the project’s completion last summer, during a public symposium held on the Williams College campus to bring together the team of designers, Conforti remarked: “Tadao Ando has given us a wonderful place to be. It all seems so logical now—an utterly logical, simple experience.” Conforti echoed remarks made by others in characterizing the change as “a radical conservation,” the notion being that you cannot really preserve great, venerable institutions unless work is constantly performed on them. An institution, if it is to survive, can never be complacent, pretending that change is not happening around it. 

Reed Hilderbrand, the principal of his namesake landscape architecture firm, added to those sentiments: “In a surprising way, the museum is now even more like the Clark than it was before.” That seemingly contradictory statement translates to mean that the original mission of the museum—to showcase one man’s collection of figurative, traditional art, coupled with the institution’s spectacular natural setting—has been recaptured, actually enhanced by the addition of something new. So disharmonious were the two extant buildings which formerly comprised the museum that the new additions have brought a kind of familial peace or truce. In his official architectural statement about the Visitor Center building he designed, Ando writes: “The architecture aims to embody the Clark’s unique concept of engagement with art in a rich natural environment. My hope is that the new building…will encourage flexible and diverse encounters between art, nature and people.” To occupy either of his new buildings—the Visitor Center and the Lunder—reveals that his intentions have been met. 

Ando likens his two-story Visitor Center, defined by minimalist red granite walls that appear to stretch into infinity, expansive mid-century-modernesque outdoor terraces and mullionless expanses of glass eyebrowed by deep roof overhangs, to the architectural birth of a new grandchild on the campus. “The other buildings—the original Daniel Perry-designed building from 1955 is the father, followed by the child of the Belluschi building—are now joined by this grandchild,” he said through a translator. “This is the first time I have ever used stone in my work because it is a material that is already on the site.” Conforti acknowledges that decision by citing Ando’s sensitive recognition and embrace of the “DNA of this site.” Originally, however, Ando had planned to use concrete for the building as a way to stylistically distinguish it from the marble of the original building and the red granite of the Belluschi. But when he was taken to see the local quarry pits from which the granite had been hewn to fashion the Belluschi and was urged to consider it for his building, Ando conceded that it was right.

Tudao Ando Architects, Lunder Center at Stone Hill, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

Ando and his Osaka-based team, however, are not the only parents of this and the other new features on the museum campus. The German-born, New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf (who qualifies for that term “starchitect,” given her cult-like status) is responsible for the renovations and expansion, measuring some 2,000 square feet, in the Perry building. She is continuing, too, with her work on the Belluschi structure. Within it, Selldorf has reconfigured the floor plan to accommodate the Manton Study Center for Works on Paper, as well as a central public reading room positioned in the former atrium, illuminated by a skylight. For years, this atrium, a space visitors first encountered when arriving at the Clark, was an oddly unwelcoming, even disorienting, one. Despite its expansiveness and its illumination via a skylight, the room seemed oddly shrouded in shadow, as if a passing cloud had yet to lift. 

Selldorf’s task for the Manton building has not been an easy one, for it is, rather than an adored child, an ugly stepchild. It embodies all of the sculptural gracelessness and haughtiness of 1970s Brutalism, a building that insists on an unadorned solidity as the right statement to make. When asked if the Belluschi wing was adored or loathed upon its dedication, Conforti carefully responds: “It is a building that functions wonderfully. It was never probably loved, but it Tadao Ando Architects, Lunder Center at Stone Hill, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute has always performed well in what is what meant to do. We never considered the idea of doing away with it when conceiving this new plan for the Clark.” He points to a top-floor terrace area that will eventually become a new lookout point for visitors, as well as a venue for parties, and cites the building’s successful role as the base for administrative offices and a research library.

Tadao Ando Architects, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, lower gallery area, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

Actually, the Belluschi building has never looked better, now that it is part of a triumvirate with the Visitor Center and the Perry building. (The Ando-designed Lunder Center at Stone Hill Center is not visible from the complex.) At the public symposium, Goldberger admitted to a new-found fondness for Brutalism, especially as articulated by Belluschi: “I’m one of those people who have begun to reassess Brutalism and respect it.” 

Selldorf, who is known for her elegantly rendered high-end residential towers in Manhattan, numerous art spaces in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and in London (including the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery), and her transformation of an Upper East Side Beaux-Arts mansion into the Neue Galerie, was required to be more subtle in her work on the original Clark building. It is, after all, a dowdy edifice that tries, but fails, to evoke the splendor of the classical. “My god, that building is really bad, worse than it’s even talked about being,” remarks Emily Rauh Pulitzer, head of the St. Louis-based Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, who had hired Ando to design her headquarters in 2001, and who was in attendance for the opening festivities. 

Sterling Clark, however, was unabashed in his admiration of traditional classical forms and his penchant for collecting Renaissance and old masters, nineteenth-century French paintings, works by the Impressionists and figurative American art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recognizing that such tastes were already unfashionable in the 1950s, when such movements as Color Field and Abstract Expressionism were filling canvases and museum walls, he purposely chose to unveil his collection in the newly completed Tadao Ando Architects, lower gallery area, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute museum in stages—in essence, teasing the public (and the critics) by showing just select groupings of his assembled works. As the works were being hung in his museum, Clark wrote: “I expect the critics will give me the works! But I also expect I will be amused.” The moment it was complete, Clark opened just a single gallery within it, featuring only thirty-five of his some 3,400 holdings, with, notably, only one Renoir included among the thirty-eight he owned by that Impressionist. It would take another five years before he would allow all of the galleries within the museum to be opened—a brilliant strategy that served as a commentary on prevailing tastes of the time while also heightening and maintaining interest in the museum among the public. 

Although Selldorf’s work on the two buildings appears minimal, she admits to taking both down to their most basic elements, before putting them back together again. “The work we did, especially on the 1955 building, took stock of every surface, every proportion, to bring it all together into a tranquil and coherent whole,” she says. “And, yet, we don’t want anyone who already knows this museum to know that anything has been done.” She pauses after this prior statement: “Actually, we do hope people see the changes we’ve made. The art now looks better than it ever has. The collection is contained in a series of spaces in which you want to stay.” In referring to the new Ando-designed glass pavilion, akin to a porch, through which most visitors now enter the museum, Selldorf says: “The moment you come into this enclosure, you have a moment of rest, and it prepares you for something profound.” 

The first moment of profundity at the Clark now involves an encounter with Winslow Homer. Richard Rand, the museum’s senior curator, chose Homer to be the first artist visitors meet (there are eleven oil paintings and eleven watercolors in the collection). Despite the grandeur of the new approach to the museum, via a series of terraces as expansive as something out of Brasilia, or through Ando’s angled glass-walled corridor, the visitor ultimately enters a more modestly scaled, dimly lit room, filled with Homer canvases, including his Prout’s Neck seascapes and his particularly poetic Sleigh Ride (1890–95), which depicts two riders atop a hill, soon to make a turn out of view. These are the kinds of works that have long defined the Clark and, so, it is both a comforting and welcoming introduction to the museum. But it involves a change in scale and even light that can be disorienting. Visitors now transition from bright, decidedly modern spaces into a dim, traditionally scaled room that is hung with contemplative paintings. Yet, while the Clark has been transformed into a campus that requires a visitor’s map in hand and an army of golf carts to shuttle visitors about, its essence remains. 

The Clark is now a place of many destinations—certainly for specific, adored artworks, but also for special vistas. The climb to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill is among the most appealing and inspiring art traversings to be had in America, and feels akin to a kind of cultural pilgrimage. (Those golf carts can whisk visitors there, too.) The trail winds among native grasses, with ever-inspiring views of the surrounding Berkshires and Green Mountains coming into focus the higher you go (the ultimate reward being an outdoor terrace). During the inaugural ceremonies, the Lunder featured “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” an exhibition that brought together the artist’s five Circle sculptures fashioned between 1961 and 1963. In the exhibition catalogue, Conforti writes: “Painted in colors contrary to those found in nature, but constructed to stand in concert with the dramatic Adirondack landscape that was so important to him, Smith’s sculptures confront viewers with a conflict: How are we to be modern, responsive to the materials and technologies of our time, and also remain conscious of nature and our respective locales?” The show proved a direct response to, and articulation of, one of the new missions of the Clark. 

There are the artists represented on the walls and within the galleries of the Clark, and, now, there are those artists and visionaries who built the new facilities. Ando, Selldorf, Hilderbrand, et al., in consort with the sweeping vision of Conforti, have created something for, of and even distinct from the art in the collection. “What we wanted to do here,” said Conforti, “was to make it all better, but to have people know that they are still at the Clark.” While those narrative moments depicted in many of the artworks at the Clark remain open to interpretation and conjecture, the finished museum is a story whose compelling plot line is now firmly resolved.