Clark Art Institue Renovations a Waste of Space and Money

I first visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA in 1975 and never stopped going back. Until 2011, that is, when the Clark closed most of its galleries to embark upon a three-rear expansion plan. The venerable Clark reopened in July 2014 to showcase its new digs, improved gallery spaces, and astronomical new admission price ($25). The Wall Street Journal raved over the new building, one designed by leading Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and it even won a few prizes. On the other hand, because most of the reviews of the new Clark have been mixed or scathingly negative, I waited until the free admission month of December to check it out.  
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Women of Amphissa

It was exhilarating to see old favorites back in the Clark after a three-year hiatus but, alas, I must concur with the new wing's naysayers–it is awful and inappropriate in just every way bad architecture can be. The Clark certainly needed updating–its main galleries date to 1955, the year the museum opened. Ando's wing increased the Clark's gallery space by 15% and provided a much-needed separate gallery for special exhibits. Also to be praised are improved lighting and internal renovations that add luster to the Clark's luminous treasures.

A little history, though, reveals why everything else about the new wing is a dud. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute houses the couple's private art collection. (Robert) Sterling Clark was among the heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and he began making trips to Paris in 1911 to purchase art. He married Francine Clary in 1919 and, thereafter, the New York power couple maintained a home in Paris to facilitate art buying. Sterling Clark was so deeply conservative that his name surfaces in a 1930s plot to overthrow President Roosevelt, but World War Two shook him to his core. By most accounts he remained conservative, but the war's destruction, the atomic bomb, and Cold War tension led him to fear that a nuclear exchange would destroy his beloved art. Why move it to Williamstown, a village in Massachusetts' northwest corner? Because one could get there from New York, but mostly because prevailing projections claimed that fallout from a nuclear exchange would not harm the area.

The first thing wrong with the Ando reboot is that it is unfaithful to Clark's conservative instincts. Of course, a modern museum cannot remain anchored to one man's 1930s style politics, but it should do things that enhance the collection. Ando has designed space for a contemporary art collections, something the Clark doesn't have and never will. Like the Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting above, the Clark's collection is often playful and sometimes even lustful–such as its sensual Bouguereaus–but nearly all of it reflects the Clarks' haute bourgeois tastes: Old Masters, European Realism, Homer, Remington, Rodin, and one of the finest Impressionist collections in North America. So why build an envelope that, from the outside, is more suggestive of a Holocaust memorial than a Monet water lily? 

I do not exaggerate. One now drives into the Clark past severe unadorned polished granite slabs. One then walks along walls suggestive of Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial sans names, and enters a metal tube and glass foyer that's massive and largely empty:  the main desk, a staircase, and–peeking behind a slab–one of the most barren gift shops I've ever seen in a major museum. Looking for signs to tell you what's downstairs or how to get to the galleries? Keep looking.

A welcoming space, or cafe of the damned?
Downstairs is where one finds the special exhibits gallery and what is being touted as the Clark's first true café, a few tables with a raw reinforced concrete back wall and a fronting wall of glass. Maybe the Clark's board found this innovative, but it's distressingly akin to cafés in the University of Massachusetts Campus Center, a building beloved by no one. The space is underground; hence the glass faces more blank slabs. In the summer, the entryway is silhouetted by shallow reflective ponds, one of which cascades down to café level. That, I suppose, is mildly interesting and the pools lend gravitas to an otherwise boring slice of neo-Brutalism, but let's return to Monet to discuss a more gracious path not taken.

There was no reason to construct ponds because—as anyone who has been to the Clark knows–there is already a lovely natural pond on the premises. At the height of summer it teems with (you guessed it) water lilies. It's easy to envision flattening the sterile and empty entryway, reorienting it, and making the real pond the museum's outdoor centerpiece. Mother Nature nearly always trumps landscaping.

Let me beat the tired horse: the new entry is a waste of space whose spartan voids evoke yawns, not Zen. There's plenty of room to display the missing instructions that one gets to the galleries by traversing the void, making a right, and then walking up a slight incline to get to the second floor of the original 1955 building. That's where the fun really begins. We walk out of Ando's postmodernist boredom and into the twenty galleries housing old friends.  

Drained pools and lots of emptiness.
I'm glad the Clark has more space, I'm thrilled by the gallery upgrades, and I'm glad it's back to full strength. But it will be a while before I renew my membership. The trustees spent $145 million on the renovations and spent it foolishly. They built a space to display Ellsworth Kelly, not Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Need 15% more space so you can do a Kelly loaner show? Do what any sensible contractor would do and add a room off the back. Make it blend and, by all means, don't waste money on empty space. Take the savings and buy some good art to furnish the new addition.  Rob Weir


Sean Burns said...

UHoh- Havent been yet- IS IT REALLY 25 BUCKS? There are more extensive resources for scholars I understand. Always was a jewel.

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