Members of the media gathered along the new reflecting pool for a preview of the Clark Art Institute's $145 million renovation.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As construction crews raced to put the finishing touches on the Clark Art Institute's landscape, the museum Friday showed off the features that will broaden the cultural landscape of North County.
Opening day to the general public is still a week away, but on Friday afternoon architects Tadao Ando, Douglas Reed, Gary Hilderbrand, Annabelle Selldorf and Madeline Burke-Vigeland joined the Clark's curators and top brass in playing tour guides to members of the press from throughout the region and around the world.
As the culmination of a 10-year effort nears the finish line, Clark Director Michael Conforti said the frantic pace of the final few weeks has left him relatively unaffected.
"I was not stressed, but the staff was," Conforti said while looking out over the reflecting pool that now unifies the Clark's lower campus and integrates its infrastructure into the natural surroundings.
"I would have been stressed if the staff wasn't stressed. But everyone was so energized and anxious to get it done that I've actually been fairly cool these last few weeks. But if I didn't have staff and consultants and architects and all the people who are involved in this project who were anxious to get it done right and get it done right on time, I think I would have been fairly stressed."
"On time" is the key.
The interior spaces at the new-look Clark are as advertised. The original 1955 "white building" has been given a total makeover by Selldorf that makes the most of the institution's permanent collection. The first-floor gallery in the new Ando-designed Clark Center is bright and airy but also flexible enough to be intimate with the use of screened walls that keep the opening exhibition compact while allowing natural light from the building's floor-to-ceiling windows. And even the downstairs special exhibition space — which will not be occupied until August — is a dramatic improvement over the Clark's old special exhibition rooms in the Manton Research Center.
But on Friday there were seemingly as many laborers as scribes on campus, and that was not part of the original plan.
"I didn't envision that a year ago, but I began to envision it four months ago," Conforti said. "Four or five months ago we began to assume [that the work would still be ongoing at this late date]. People have told me it is not unusual.
"I wanted it to be done a month or two earlier. But this way people get energized. I think greater things happen when there is pressure. I've been told this is not uncommon, but I would have liked to have had it done a couple of months ago.
"There's a sense of excitement and a sense of accomplishment when everyone is involved in that last-minute element. So I have to say I've been participating in the energy of it being a last-minute project."
Later, while addressing the crowd gathered on the patio that links the visitor center with the man-made pond, Conforti praised the architectural team that has labored to bring the 15-year expansion project to fruition.
Led by the vision of the of the Pritzker Prize-winning Ando, the expansion has included the 2008 opening of the Stone Hill Center and truly will not be complete until the Manton reopens some time next year. Reed and Hilderbrand brought the nationally-known landscape design skills of their Boston firm to the project. Burke-Vigeland's New York firm, Gensler & Associates, coordinated all aspects of the project as the U.S. architect of record. Selldorf, also based in New York City, is helming renovations in the 1955 building and the Manton.
And Conforti recognized each. But he quickly pivoted the conversation back to the art that hangs on or is surrounded by the walls that team designed.
"Architecture is in the service of mission and programs, and that mission is only going to be more enhanced with the spaces that we have," Conforti said. "People will come here to the Clark because they know that the Clark is a great center for exhibitions and the permanent collection. They're also going to come because we're also the international center for a symposia and colloquia group — the last one happening in Singapore in May.
"Some people think of us as a greenhouse of ideas. When it comes to the visual arts, we are often the organization that leads the critical community to thinking differently about the way we consider visual arts."
Visitors also will think differently about the Clark's campus, which before the expansion featured two jarringly dissimilar architectural styles: the neoclassical 1955 white building and 1973's red granite Manton Research Center designed by Pietro Belluschi.
Hilderbrand said one of the chief imperatives for the expansion project was to answer the question: Could those buildings live in harmony?
Clark Art Institute Director Michael Conforti talks about the museum's 15-year expansion and renovation project.
"The short answer is, 'Probably no,' " he said.
"We saw a dozen studies, and there was only one thing that was consistent among those studies ... this, a big sheet of water.
"At that moment, we all knew what our charge would be. You could get your mind around the idea that a body of water as a reflective device ... could go some measure to joining things around its edge. Realistically, what's very hard is to stare at the Trustees and the neighbors and say, 'Yes, it's possible to make a big sheet of water here.' "
Not only does it form a focal point for the three-building lower Clark campus (Stone Hill is, for now, the only element on what could be called the upper campus), it also is part of a complex hydrology system that reduces the Clark's consumption of potable water and cleans the runoff discharged into Christmas Brook.
And the reflecting pool is framed on its western edge by a wall made of red granite mined in the same Minnesota quarry that produced the exterior granite of the Manton building, Hilderbrand said.
"From the beginning, the constant conversation was, 'What would be the visitor's experience?' " Selldorf said in welcoming the press to the 1955 building. "How could we make sure people wouldn't, by mistake, not find one room, but at the same time not feel coerced to go a particular way but really sort of experience the idiosyncratic private collection in the manner in which one wants to?
"I feel if I was to say if there was one thing that we did, I would perhaps not say anything. I think it's the layering of many different things that pertain to re-proportioning spaces, understanding how openings lead from one smaller room to a larger room, how one part of the collection relates to another part of the collection and in a multitude of ways that would always be coherent and harmonious at the same time."
Anyone interested in learning more about the architectural features of the Clark's expansion should check out a lecture on Saturday morning at Williams College's Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall (reservations through the Clark's website, clarkart.edu, are required). Friday's press preview kicks off a busy eight days that will culminate on Friday and includes Saturday's VIP party and fireworks, Tuesday's member preview day and, of course, Friday's grand reopening — with more fireworks to celebrate the nation's independence and the Clark's new era on July 4.
And on July 5?
"That's a very good question," Conforti said. "I'll be taking people through the building.
"I was going to visit a friend in New Hampshire on July 5, but wife told me she is volunteering at the Clark that day and she can't go. So I can't get away until either late in the day on July 5 or July 6. But we are going away for a couple of days."
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