Making it new

Monday 07 Jul 2014

A decade in the making, the Clark Art Institute opens its transformed campus

When new buildings fit their surroundings like theyve always been there it is usually the result of great skill and lots of hard work. The newly expanded Clark Art Institute in Western Massachusetts - which opened on 4 July - is, despite an ambitious $145m transformation, an improved facility that offers visitors an intimate and quiet experience with art and nature. 

Intimate is not the word one would typically think of to describe a transformation of the Clarks size, which adds 97,700 sq ft of space to the 280,000 sq ft campus. Yet despite its sweeping scale almost everything at the Clark has gotten better: the art, the landscape, and the visitor experience. Thanks to the leadership of the Clarks visionary Director and the work of four talented architects, the Clark has remade itself not in the image of Bilbao but in the image of itself, a small and storied art museum with a prized collection set in one of the most magnificent landscapes in the United States.

When Michael Conforti joined the Clark in 1994 as its new Director, he had a plan to make an already exceptional museum even better. He would do this by expanding the Clarks collection, forging new relationships with other cultural institutions to extend the Clarks reach and reputation, and by expanding the Clark physically to offer new programs and better research and educational facilities. To elevate the institutions stature in the art world, Conforti did things like lending its prized impressionist art collection to blockbuster organisations like the Kimball Art Museum but the capstone of his tenure thus far has been shepherding the most significant building project in the Clarks 58-year history. That project brings sweeping change to the institution and it puts the landscape on par with its enviable collection. 

The project unites a new museum designed by Tadao Ando Architects with an expanded research and education center designed by Selldorf Architects. These buildings surround a newly reworked landscape by Reed Hilderbrand that features 3 new reflecting pools, 2 miles of hiking paths and more than 1,000 new trees. What looks simple and so logical has been achieved through a complex and environmentally sensitive design and construction project that unites many disparate parts, said Conforti.

Those parts include: Andos two-story stone, concrete and glass visitor center, which serves as the new centerpiece of the Clark and its primary entrance; the expansion and renovation by Selldorf Architects of the Clarks original Museum Building, which adds more than 2,200 sq ft of gallery space and has been smartly reworked by Seldorf to retain its domestic character whilst functioning as a modern art museum; and the Selldorf-renovated Manton Research Center, a 1973 building designed by Pietro Belluschi that houses the Clarks research and academic activities and an art history library. The glue that holds it all together is the Clarks magnificent landscape. 

One of the great challenges of the project was expanding the campus without detracting from its majestic landscape. That was the task of Reed Hilderbrand, who in concert with the building architects, re-conceived the Clarks grounds to achieve new levels of sustainability and to create an exceptional visitor experience. The unifying element of this landscape is a tiered reflecting pool that is the new focal point of the campus and unites the three surrounding buildings with the natural setting. 

In its inaugural summer the Clark is presenting several special exhibitions. One of those is Make it New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975. Like the Clarks newly transformed campus, it looks at the familiar anew with the goal of forging new meanings and connections.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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