Clark Art Institute’s expansion paves the way for major loans

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Understated new buildings and refurbished old ones reopen today

Much of the expansion is low rise or below ground. Photo © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute nestles in the verdant hills of the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Its $145m expansion, which opens to the public today, 4 July, took four architecture firms 12 years to complete. Their brief included making sure that the institution remained in harmony with the landscape. Among the changes visitors will find is a reconfiguration of the museum’s grounds, the renovation of existing buildings and the construction of a visitor centre designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

While other museums across the US have opened flashy buildings, the Clark—a jewel box of an institution founded by an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune in 1955—has adopted an understated approach. Three-quarters of its new facilities, including 7,750 sq. ft of temporary exhibition space, are below ground and largely invisible to passersby.

“It’s unusual for an organisation to have 140 acres in a small town and plan things below ground, but we wanted to keep the scale appropriate to the original building,” says Michael Conforti, the museum’s director. “We were sensitive to the fact that people come here for an intimate experience, so green space was important.” A landscape design by the firm Reed Hilderbrand includes revamped walking trails, planting 1,000 trees and creating a reflecting pool fed by recycled water.

The Clark focused as much on repurposing existing spaces as building new ones. New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf reconfigured the Clark’s original Neo-Classical-style marble building and a Brutalist-style research centre that had been built in the 1970s. Selldorf increased exhibition space in the original building by 15% and added galleries for the American and decorative art collections. The renovated research centre, which will be used by visiting scholars as well as students from nearby Williams College, is due to open in spring 2015.

Before the renovation the Clark’s modest size, low ceilings and outmoded storage and loading bay restricted the size of loan exhibitions and works it could borrow. “We could never partner with other institutions because they always had more space,” Conforti says. The new concrete-and-glass galleries will provide ample breathing room for oversize canvases, including those in the forthcoming exhibition, “Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-75” (2 August-13 October). “When you think of the importance of 20th-century art for the next generation, particularly for students, we really had to address this,” Conforti says.

While the Clark’s galleries were closed for renovations, it sent 73 French 19th-century paintings on tour to 11 venues, from the Prado in Madrid to the Shanghai Museum. Those institutions are now returning the favour. Among the Clark’s reopening exhibitions is a show of rare Chinese bronzes on loan from the Shanghai Museum.

The expansion project has been funded through private donations, foundation support, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and bond financing organised in conjunction with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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