Clark Art Institute: Going Big in the Berkshires

Anybody who knows the Clark will be a little bit surprised by how you enter it now,” says Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The museum reopens on July 4 after a 12-year-long expansion led by Pritzker Prize– winning architect Tadao Ando and a total renovation of existing structures by Annabelle Selldorf. The centerpiece of the $145 million project is Ando’s new glass, stone, and concrete visitor center, which includes galleries for special exhibitions and looks out onto a massive, three-tiered reflecting pool.

“When you arrive, you’ll see a bunch of walls,” Conforti continues, referring to a scheme of red granite partitions that obscure the campus from the parking lot. “Ando consciously funnels you through a very narrow door. Then, all the sudden, it’s truly transformative to walk in—to see the plaza and the great water feature in front of you, to see all three of the campus buildings surrounding it and the views to the Berkshires and the Taconic Mountains.” The reflecting pool is not just for esthetics; it is the center of a hydrological system to retain, filter, and store rainwater that is estimated to reduce the museum’s water consumption by 50 percent. The pool also unifies the existing museum building, the research center, and the visitor center, while extending to a network of new walking trails that wind throughout the 140-acre site, designed by the landscape firm Reed Hilderbrand.

A view of the new Tadao Ando–designed visitor center at the Clark Art Institute, which houses underground galleries.KRIS QUA/COURTESY STERLING AND FRANCINE CLARK ART INSTITUTE, WILLIAMSTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS

A view of the new Tadao Ando–designed visitor center at the Clark Art Institute, which houses underground galleries.


Most of the spaces in the 44,000-square-foot expansion are in fact underground, including the special-exhibition galleries, café, loading dock, art-storage facilities, and central kitchen. “We wanted to keep the intimacy of the scale of the Clark,” says Conforti. “We picked Ando because we knew he could do open courtyards with light coming into the lower spaces.” Inaugurating the airy galleries are the shows “Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai Museum,” and “Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950–1975” (opening August 2), in addition to an exhibition of David Smith sculptures at the Stone Hill Center—also designed by Ando—up the hill from the main campus and completed in 2008.

Ando has bridged new and old, with a long glassed-in concourse and pavilion connecting the expansion to the original 1955 museum building. There, Selldorf did a complete overhaul—restoring the building’s east-west orientation, redoing the lighting and climate-control systems, and reclaiming some gallery space that had been converted to offices. “You still know you’re at the Clark,” says Conforti, “but she’s done this wonderful, slightly Modernist updating that reconceptualizes the space.” The permanent collection, which has strengths in 18th- and 19th-century French and British art, has been reinstalled throughout the building.

Selldorf is also renovating the museum’s research center—one of the largest art-history research libraries in the country and home to Williams College’s graduate program in art history—which is reopening in phases through next spring. The biggest change to that 1973 building is Selldorf’s enclosing of the courtyard to create a public reading room. “We’re a dual-mission institution, a research center as much as an art museum,” says Conforti. “We’ll be able to make that association a little more vibrant by moving people through the Manton Research Center, where they’ll be able to see art history in practice.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Going Big in the Berkshires .”

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