Letter: Dismaying return visit to Clark Art Institute


To the editor of THE EAGLE:

To Mr. Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute:

Dear Mr. Conforti, This past Friday, August 1, with friends we visited the Clark to see the changes following the major building program and to view the various collections. Generally, we make an annual pilgrimage to the Clark while summering in New England, although we gave it a miss last year, due to the construction and the French impressionist paintings out on loan.

As we approached the new Tadao Ando Visitors Center, we were struck by the long, tall polished red granite walls cutting swaths through the landscape. While described as daunting by one critic, I would label them claustrophobic, since they serve mainly to obscure much of the bucolic, rolling Berkshire Hills. Upon entry via leaden, albeit handsome, doors, we found ourselves in an overly cavernous reception area, devoid of ornament, reminiscent of a post-war European rail station. The reflecting ponds are indeed beautiful, with their bed of pebbles, notwithstanding the high granite walls at their edge blocking, not enhancing, the view of the splendid countryside.

The passageway to the original white marble temple housing the legacy collection is most convenient and the fact that office and other space in that building are now devoted to Winslow Homer and George Inness is much appreciated. Their position in the rather homely 1973 annex did little credit to their importance in the permanent collection. In other respects, at the risk of sounding Plebian, Annabelle Selldorf’s new treatment of the interior spaces of the 1955 white marble temple is hardly fortuitous.

Gone are most of the decorative arts that tastefully adorned the galleries and rendered them more comfortable and welcoming. The long gallery, in particular, is quite stark, while giving the impression of a temporary exhibit. The absent Turners were noted. The entire silver collection is now confined to costly glass showcases more suited to a display of stuffed birds. Only the splendid 18th century Viennese soup tureen ended up in a place of honor. The beautiful Lemuel Curtis wall clock has gone missing, along with many other wonderful pieces of American and European furniture.

The front room in which the clock was hung now houses sculpture and other works that seem out of place, as does the sculpture in the center of the charming Alfred Stevens octagonal cabinet. What a pity that the Clarks did not stipulate more specific restrictions in their will on the treatment of the classically beautiful white marble temple and the legacy art housed therein! They are doubtless restive in their tombs at their beloved museum.

While I would not have suggested such draconian rules as imposed by Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, I would nonetheless expect the present-day trustees of your fine institute to be more respectful of the original concept. It is understood that growth and change are inevitable in this era of exuberant benefactors, but there is surely a more sensitive approach to preserving the warmth, charm, grandeur and integrity of the original 1955 museum.

As we left The Clark late that afternoon, I felt dismayed and saddened and realized that the enthusiasm with which I had urged friends from around the world for decades to visit its extraordinary art collection had significantly waned.




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