WILLIAMSTOWN- Mask-clad and socially-distant, members of the public returned to the Clark Art Institute on Sunday to put their lives on pause.
Or at least that's how Director Olivier Meslay describes the experience of strolling the Clark's galleries. As COVID-19 continues to grip the country, Meslay hopes the reopened Institute can serve as "a healing place."
"People have an anxiety that the museum is relieving in many ways," he told The Eagle, while some late 19th-century art looked on. "People feel comfort when they see beauty."
An amble around the Clark, though, did not obscure evidence of the pandemic. Hand sanitizer stations dotted the galleries, and the museum is following state guidelines mandating the use of masks while indoors. The Clark has also capped visitors at 25 percent of the building's capacity — an undershot of the 40 percent permissible under state's guidelines.
"We will not only follow the regulations, but we will be even more prudent to make everyone feel safe," Meslay said.
The pandemic has largely shuttered the vibrant performing arts scene in the Berkshires this summer, but museums across the county are welcoming visitors again as part of the state's Phase III reopening plan. In addition to the Clark, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and MASS MoCA in North Adams unlocked their doors this weekend.
The state's guidelines require museums to book advance tickets for all visitors. Guests are given a specific time to arrive at the museum, but can stay as long as they like once they're inside.
Instead of turning people away, Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Moffatt said the health regulations made people comfortable.
"I think people really appreciate all the safety measures," she said.
Connecticut resident Joe Markley, an avid fan of art museums, said the restrictions didn't diminish his visit to the Clark.
"It's not that different," he said. "It's a pretty easy place to stay away from people."
The Clark's more spacious areas do allow for easy social distancing, but separation in smaller rooms was enforced by signs at each entrance, marking the number of people allowed in the room at the same time.
While the restrictions might cast a different feel on the museum, leaders at the Clark say the changes come with some silver linings.
Vicki Saltzman, the director of communications, pointed to the more intimate experience offered by a gallery with fewer people in it. A new tendency for people to stay outdoors has also brought more attention to the Clark's beautiful property, including the museum's first ever outdoor exhibition which will launch in the coming weeks.
The pandemic also boosted the museum's digital outreach. The museum's leadership intends to continue "Clark Connects," an online educational series, even once it's safe to hold in-person programming, Saltzman said.
Chris McNamara, who visited the Clark with her family from Long Island, was impressed by the museum's adaptation to regulations.
"They really did it so sensitively and so safely," she said. "It's a real finesse job."
McNamara, who works at a museum herself, said she would try to imitate what she saw at the Clark when reopening her museum.
Markley, the visitor from Connecticut, said he was frustrated that museums did not open earlier. He got his art fix Sunday, though, as he gazed at some impressionist art; a style which -- like human interaction amid a pandemic -- is best enjoyed from a distance.
"The pleasure of seeing a painting is with your own eyes," he said. "That's the only way to do it."
Jack Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND.