Clark Art Institute to celebrate 60th anniversary Sunday

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Photo Gallery | The Clark Art celebrates 60 years

Interactive Timeline | Major milestones and acquisitions of The Clark

Video | 1955 Opening Day Ceremony at The Clark

WILLIAMSTOWN — On Tuesday, May 17, 1955, under cloudy, drizzly skies, about 60 locals dressed in their Sunday best gathered outside a white marble building while a well-to-do couple opened a little art museum in a small town in Western Massachusetts.

Sixty years later, the Clark Art Institute is an expansive cultural and educational center, moving forcefully into the upper tier of international art destinations.

On Sunday, the Clark will celebrate its 60th anniversary with free admission all day, cake on the terrace at noon and free performances by Williams College a cappella groups that afternoon.

The Clark, founded by Sterling and Francine Clark, had humble beginnings. According to Michael Conforti, director of the Clark, Sterling Clark didn't much like undue attention. And he loved his dynamic collection of mostly impressionist works but liked to keep it quiet.

"He didn't really want anybody to know about it," Conforti said. "And he hated the press. He actually complained about people knowing about his collection."

In fact, Clark wasn't crazy about big museums, either, Conforti noted. If he went to a museum, it tended to be a small, private museum.

"But he loved his collection," Conforti said. "So he had mixed feelings, and that translated into a modest opening."

Invited to the ribbon-cutting were members of the local college faculty and the community.

Once the doors opened, people were wowed by the quality and impact of the works, by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Piero della Francesca, Claude Monet, Thomas Gainsborough, and Edgar Degas. It quickly became a cultural bright spot for art lovers, many of whom made an annual pilgrimage to see their favorites.

"Once it became known, it was recognized nationally," Conforti said. "The fact that an unknown collection of this caliber was now known and on public view rippled through the country."

In the early 1970s, a master's degree program in the history of art was established, co-sponsored by Williams College and the Clark. That was an early step in establishing the Clark's educational arm and the construction of the Manton Research Center in 1973.

Soon, art historians and specialists were flocking to the site along with the art lovers.

The Clark's library became part of that effort, with more than 240,000 volumes. And since 1998, the Clark's Research and Academic Program has hosted more than 300 scholars from 27 countries, and hosts a series of colloquia, symposia, workshops and lectures, both at the Clark and in venues in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

In the early 1990s, Conforti recalls, a small addition to the original museum building allowed additional "visiting" exhibitions of touring works. Since then, the Clark special exhibitions — such as The Clark Brothers Collect (2006), The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings (2007), Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence (2009), and Picasso Looks at Degas (2010) — have been gathering followers and momentum for the museum.

And on the Fourth of July last year, the Clark opened its recently completed final phase of the $145 million, 15-year expansion project, including a 42,600-square-foot Clark Center, which serves as new galley space and the main entryway to the campus and visitor center.

The original museum building was expanded and renovated. Earlier, the security aspects, loading docks and climate control systems were upgraded, and a second building for exhibition and art conservation — the Stone Hill Center — had been built just up the hill. The campus landscape was also redesigned and its hiking trails enhanced.

That expansion put the Clark in a position to host more temporary exhibitions from more places of more impressive art, both in size and in scope.

"Now, we have 10,000 square feet of special exhibition space where we can host large-scale paintings we could not have shown in the past," Conforti said. "The future is very exciting because we're not limited by height and square footage."

He said the enhanced campus infrastructure gives the Clark the ability to host pieces that are assessed at more than $100 million in value.

A good example is one of its most ambitious exhibitions to date — this summer's "Van Gogh and Nature" exhibition, from June 14 to Sept. 13, featuring nearly 50 paintings and drawings from 30 museums and private collections around the world.

"We could never have done the Van Gogh exhibition before," Conforti said.

And on July 4, another triumphant exhibition will open when "Whistler's Mother" goes on display. Actually titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother)," by James McNeill Whistler, it will be the centerpiece of the exhibition "Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White," on view through Sept. 27.

As a result of the Clark's expansion and cultural impact internationally, attendance, and the accompanying economic impact, are expected to continue to swell.

Figures provided by the Clark show an average annual attendance of about 200,000 people. And according to the results of an EDM economic impact study released in 2012, now that the expansion is done, local and state tax revenues should increase by $529,000 per year because of people coming to visit the Clark, generating an additional 80 jobs related to the tourism industry in the region.

Conforti, who is retiring in August after 21 years, said he is leaving the art museum and education institution in a position to be more versatile in its vision and in its ability to attract new visitors from new demographic groups and ages.

"Now, the Clark can do almost anything it wants," Conforti said. "It will be interesting to see — they will have the ability to mix the contemporary with the historic in a variety of intriguing ways, and programmatic growth will translate into economic growth in the Northern Berkshires as a center for art. I'm very confident the Clark will maintain the lively reputation it's had and it will only grow."

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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