Bringing art out

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WILLIAMSTOWN - Curator Jay Clarke could barely hide her excitement as she showed off the new reading room for works on paper at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

She ducked back to the vault and came out with a few priceless works - watercolors by Winslow Homer, a charcoal sketch by Claude Monet - and propped them up around the room.

"I love bringing art out," she said, arranging them around the new Manton Research Center, with its wood ledges, seats, and tables that invite close inspection and contemplation.

The weekend opening of the center marks a new commitment to the museum's collection of works on paper, including the prints, drawings and photographs. It is an often overlooked part of the museum's collection - a more serious and intimate part of its work once reserved for scholars and particularly interested art lovers.

"At some museums, the accessibility and exhibition space for works on paper is contracting," said Clarke, who is the Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs. "Some study rooms are becoming less accessible because of staffing issues, or they don't have their own galleries. We're actually doing the opposite."

The opening of the new building also marks the formal completion of a $170 million string of construction projects, dating back to 2006, that have reshaped the institute.

This weekend celebrates that finale with a series of events around the campus. The Manton Research Center, which for 30 years had been the entrance area as well as the library, administrative offices and the home of the Williams College graduate program in art history, has been reshaped.

With the entrance moved to the west end with the new Tadao Ando-designed addition that opened in summer 2014, the former entrance lobby is now a reading room for the library. It features a number of study booths and new skylights that bathe the space in natural light.

The most striking feature are matching stacks of bookshelves high in the atrium on either side. Most of the books come from the recently announced donation of the 15,000-book private library from artist Allan Sekula. Many are duplicates, or less often checked out, but they can be accessed on request.

The interior work was designed by Annabelle Selldorf of Selldorf Architects. Her work was to rethink the lighting in the space, put in place some green features, rearrange the galleries, and change the colors.

The idea, was to make the space appear new, yet familiar, according to Sally Morse Majewski, the Clark's manager of public relations and marketing.

"The mandate was to make it better without anyone noticing what we did," she said. "The intention was not to take this 1970s space and make it a 21st century space. There needed to be some continuity, and I think you see that in the reading room and the choices here."

In May 2014, Selldorf told the Eagle that the project was a balance between different spaces for visitors.

"That is a powerful transition, from new to old," she said at the time. "I hope when they come through they'll say, `I knew it would be different but I didn't know it would be this gorgeous, the art this beautiful.' "

And at the center of it all is the art.

"We wanted an integrity of architecture that stands on its own, but without taking away from the art," Selldorf said. "So while viewing the art, you experience the space at the same time."

Selldorf's interior renovation included work in the oldest Clark building, the white marble temple designed by Daniel Perry that opened in 1955. But most of the restructuring is in the newer building designed by modernist architect Pietro Belluschi, which opened in 1973.

Belluschi's other notable projects included the Julliard School at Lincoln Center in New York, and work as a design collaborator for the Pan Am Building. He also designed the Crossett Library at Bennington College in nearby southern Vermont.

The new Manton Center features new galleries, including one to focus on a rotating collections of works from the Clark and those included in the $90 million gift the museum received in June 2007 from the estate of British businessman Sir Edwin A. G. Manton.

It also features a new gallery devoted solely to works on paper. The 1,350-square-foot Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Words on Paper is a reorientation of an existing gallery. It reopens this weekend with a show, "Photography and Discovery," that features what Clarke called "some of the greatest hits from the Clark's collection of photography," which the museum began collecting 18 years ago.

"[The exhibit] is about ways photography helped people discover different places in the world, different politics, and different faces not from an artistic rendering, but from a photograph," Clarke said.

Other spaces were touched up and repackaged.

The bridge between the Manton Center and the original building has been named in honor of former interim director and longtime board member Francis Oakley. And the auditorium has gotten a touch-up, most notably with better handicapped-accessible seating.

It will host the return of the popular simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with a broadcast of Don Giovanni on Nov. 19.

But the new prominence for works on paper, as shown by the study center, is likely to bring the biggest change. The Clark's collection includes more than 6,000 prints, drawings and photographs from the 15th century through the early 20th century.

"You could always call and make an appointment," Majewski said about visiting the study room. "But I think this location and the attention and prominence it is getting will encourage people to do it more in a way that has never happened before."

Clarke said it will be an important resource not just for scholars and local college students, but perhaps even for young art lovers as well. During the renovation they had time to think about how to include elementary school students, which runs counter to the over-cautious thinking at some study rooms, which restrict anyone under 18.

"We're thinking the opposite way," Clarke said. "We want to have school groups come interact with works that aren't framed, with originals. Students are often more respectful around art than grownups."

With all the construction projects completed, new museum Director Olivier Meslay and his staff will have to deal with paying off $76.4 million in debt to pay for the $170 million campus expansion.

It raised $150 million in gifts and grants for the project, but spent an additional $56.4 million of the total $226.4 million on nonbuilding purposes like endowed curatorships, care of the collection, and programming. Moody's Investors Service has given the Clark a high Aa3 rating, but it raised concerns about the institute's reliance on investment income to cover nearly 80 percent of its $18 million average annual spending.

Meslay said at the time the museum had ample unrestricted funds from its $350 million endowment, and one of the best endowment ratios in the country.

For now, the staffers are looking forward to settling in to their new home.

"It's great to have our collection back," Clarke said.

"It's a huge amount of additional work to shepherd through a project like this, for every single person on staff," she said. "It is very exciting and energizing, but we're happy it's done."


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