New and Improved: Clark Museum in Williamstown unveils dramatic expansion and renovation

Last modified: Thursday, October 02, 2014
When the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors in 1955, it was a bit of an anomaly — a fairly modest museum seemingly in the middle of nowhere, one designed more or less as a public showcase for its founders’ private art collection.

The Williamstown museum may still be off the beaten track, but 59 years after its birth, it is decidedly not a modest affair. The Clark has just reopened after completing a major expansion and renovation that has added thousands of square feet of exhibition space and made significant environmental improvements to its grounds.

Among the biggest parts of a project that cost over $100 million is the brand-new Clark Center, with over 42,000 square feet of space that includes galleries, conference rooms, a cafe and gift shop, and underground quarters for the Clark’s revamped physical plant. The graceful building, a mix of granite, stone and soaring glass panes, was designed by Tadao Ando, an award-winning Japanese architect who also helped create a three-tiered reflecting pool just outside the center.

At a crowded media tour of the new facilities in late June, Clark director Michael Conforti said the additions represent the finishing touches of a planning effort that dates back to the early 2000s. That’s when Clark officials began considering ways to upgrade their facilities and integrate them more completely with the 140 acres of pasture, woods and hills the museum is set on.

“It’s been a complicated project, and a complicated and long process, but it looks very logical now,” Conforti said. “Our intent was to make it better, and to make environmental improvements to the campus, but also to make people realize it’s still the Clark.”

Other changes include significant renovations to the Clark’s original 1955 museum building — adding a new entrance, improving lighting, reconfiguring the layout to add 2,200 feet of gallery space — and revamping the Manton Research Center, which opened in 1973 to house the museum’s extensive library and establish connections to nearby Williams College and other academic institutions.

The Manton Center now has additional exhibit space and a reading room, though not all the new features are available yet to the public.

To celebrate the Clark’s reopening, two summer exhibits have been unveiled: “Cast for Eternity,” a display of artifacts from China’s Bronze Age, and “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” featuring selected works by Smith, a New York artist who became one of the 20th century’s most celebrated modern sculptors with his large, abstract steel figures.

In addition, Conforti noted that 73 French paintings from the Clark’s permanent collection, including numerous impressionist landscapes and portraits, have recently been put back on display following a three-year international tour that took them to 11 cities.

“We’re ready to put our best foot forward,” he said.

Tying it all together

In late June, as construction workers seeded bare ground near the Clark Center to prepare for a July 4 public reopening, reporters met with members of the four architectural firms that designed the new buildings and grounds. Ando, speaking through an interpreter, was trailed by a Japanese film crew; reporters from The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Architecture Today and other major publications mingled with local and regional media.

Clark officials say a central tenet of the institute’s makeover was to find a way to “unite the campus,” as Conforti put it — to tie the Clark buildings together more closely, open a new, main entrance to the original museum building, and find a way to link the pastoral landscape more closely to the buildings.

They’ve done that in part by constructing the tiered reflecting pool roughly midway between the Manton Center, the original museum, and the new Clark Center. But Gary Hilderbrand, of Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture of Cambridge, said the pool his firm designed is much more than an ornamental piece: It’s part of a new hydrological system that will significantly reduce the Clark’s water usage through underground storage and rainwater collection.

Other environmental improvements to the campus include the planting of more than 1,000 native trees; removal of invasive species; upgrades to existing trails on the grounds; and the installation of seven geothermal wells that are expected to reduce the Clark’s electricity and heating consumption by 28 percent.

“Our job was to look at all 140 acres, see the landscape as a whole and understand what happens here,” Hilderbrand said. “Sustainability was a central part of the design.”

Hilderbrand’s firm also designed a new street entrance and parking lot for the institute. Visitors now enter through the Clark Center, which includes a long walkway, partly underground, leading to the new entrance of the original museum. The Clark Center has more than 11,000 square feet of new exhibition space; moveable walls in some of those areas will allow for shows of different size, said Clark Associate Director Tom Loughman.

“We’re going to have a lot more flexibility for temporary exhibits, for conferences and for special events,” he said.

The new museum entrance opens into a gallery that showcases some of the Clark’s crown jewels: paintings by Winslow Homer, who might have been Sterling Clark’s favorite artist. The museum’s founder purchased well over 200 of Homer’s works — oils, watercolors, drawings, wood etchings — all of which are now part of the Clark’s permanent collection.

Expanding horizons

The physical changes at the Clark reflect how the institute has gradually moved away from its traditional focus — 19th century art — to display more work from the 20th and even 21st centuries. In the last few years, the Clark has also forged close ties with China’s Ministry of Culture and other institutions in that country to bring in art rarely seen in the U.S.

The Clark took its initial steps to expand space for visiting exhibits in 2009 when it opened the Stone Hill Center, a short walk uphill from the main buildings. Stone Hill, also designed by Tadao Ando with the granite, glass and concrete that characterize the new Clark Center, has about 3,000 square feet of gallery space and other rooms for classes, research and conferences.

It’s here that the Clark has opened the “Raw Color” exhibit of David Smith’s sculptures. Smith (1906-1965) was best known for his abstract steel designs, which he welded together from scratch and often painted in bold colors; he once said “I belong with the painters” but expressed his desire to create a “new media that will break either one.”

“Raw Color,” according to museum officials, brings together for the first time in more than 30 years the five sculptures from Smith’s “Circle Series” from 1962-63. And Conforti, the Clark director, said that show will be complemented starting Aug. 2 in the Clark Center with another exhibit, “Make It New,” featuring abstract paintings from 1950-1975 from the National Gallery of Art.

“We have more than 200,000 people come through our doors every year, and our grounds are always open to local residents who want to hike or walk their dogs,” Conforti added. “With all the changes we’ve made, we’re hoping to see even more people here.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Clark Art Institute is open daily through Oct. 5, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays in July and August. The current special exhibits “Cast for Eternity” and “Raw Color” run through Sept. 21 and Oct. 19, respectively, and the upcoming show, “Make It New,” runs Aug. 2 to Oct. 13. For ticket prices and additional information, visit www.clarkart.edu.