Committee seeks new potential sites for Williams College Museum of Art move

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Officials at the Williams College Museum of Art are back to the drawing board in their quest for a location to put a new, $65 million building.

Already, college officials have spoken with one neighborhood about a potential site at the corner of Southworth and Main streets.

In two meetings in December, neighbors seemed generally opposed to the plan, so the museum building committee took that site off the table and is in the process of evaluating other sites, according to Christina Olsen, director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

"We've suspended consideration of that site," she said. "We're turning our attention to other potential sites. We want a site that generates broad enthusiasm and that the community can embrace."

She anticipates the siting, design and construction process will take several years.

Since an expansion and renovation in the mid-1980s, the museum and art department have been working out of Lawrence Hall on Main Street. In the three decades since then, the museum collection has more than doubled to 14,000 objects, and the faculty has doubled as well.

"The museum was designed for a collection that more than doubled in size," Olsen said. "Our storage is so packed, it mostly goes to our storage facility in Connecticut. It's just not feasible to expand Lawrence Hall, and we need more space."

Meanwhile, the building has deteriorated and the HVAC system has grown inadequate for both the museum space and the teaching areas.

Lawrence Hall is 51,000 square feet, with the museum at 44,700 square feet and 6,300 square feet dedicated to the Art Department. But the building seal isn't tight enough to maintain proper temperature and humidity balance needed to protect valuable pieces of art.

And according to Peter Low, chair of the Art Department, the temperature in the faculty offices and teaching spaces are controlled from the museum space, meaning they are cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

"We're in the back of the building in the basement," Low said. "There are no windows, poor air circulation and no HVAC control. And we've had mold problems in the classrooms."

The four classrooms handle 78 art majors and well over 100 daily art students.

"We're very crammed in terms of our teaching space," Low said. "There is a lot of traffic in there. The amount of space we have and the quality of our space are huge problems."

So far, the museum building committee has identified two possible sites, Olsen noted.

One is where the Williams Inn now stands, although Low isn't crazy about that location.

The college is proposing to build a new inn at the bottom of Spring Street.

"We want to engage more vigorously with the rest of the college, especially with our colleagues in the humanities for interdisciplinary studies," Low said. "It would be fantastic for the intellectual work of both the faculty and the students.

"But [Williams Inn] is just too far to travel for the students between classes on a school day."

He noted that some art instruction will continue at Lawrence after a new building is in use.

"We want a closer physical presence to our colleagues and still be close to the art," Low said. "I think that would be fantastic for the college as a whole."

Olsen wouldn't divulge the second potential site because they are still in the early stages of scouting sites.

"We are exploring that and trying to figure it out," she said.

"I'm optimistic we'll come up with something really exciting," Low added. "It's just hard to know where that will be, right now."


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