Olivier Meslay | Museum Connection: Stewards of art and inspiration


When I first visited the Clark as a Fellow — some 20 years ago — it wasn't only the wonderful collection or the outstanding art history library that left a lasting impression upon me. That's fairly surprising for an art historian to admit. It was also the land, the place, that spoke to me very deeply and very personally.

There's something unique and wonderful about the landscape that surrounds the Clark. The sweep of the land, the sense of wilderness, the peace of the meadows and the still of the woodlands all conspire to add a level of inspiration to what happens here. The opportunity to take a walk on Stone Hill is equally as uplifting to me as is the chance to sit quietly in the galleries studying a Constable landscape.

When the Clark reopened its campus in 2014 with the new Tadao Ando-designed building and the grounds created by Reed Hilderbrand, we redirected our eye and our focus away from South Street toward the surrounding hills. While the campus expansion provided wonderful new galleries, it also signaled a deeper commitment to nature.

The role of stewardship is central to every museum director's work. Caring for its collections to protect and preserve these works for future generations is an almost sacred responsibility. At the Clark, though, that stewardship role extends far beyond the walls of its galleries or the shelves of its library to embrace those woodlands. Thus, when I was asked to return to the Clark as its director nearly two years ago, I knew I had been given a special privilege and an exciting opportunity.

Not long after I arrived, I took a long walk with the Clark's grounds manager, Matthew Noyes. Matt speaks with great enthusiasm about the extensive sustainability initiatives that were central to the design of the "new" Clark: geothermal wells, rainwater collection systems, integrated land management practices, native plants, and much more — all of which earned a LEED Gold certification for the project. As we walked through the woods, Matt pointed out deer and bear tracks, and told me about his experiences here. That summer the Clark had also created a wonderful exhibition in our Lunder Center galleries called "Sensing Place: Reflecting on Stone Hill," that was jointly curated by Mark C. Taylor and Henry W. Art. "Sensing Place" told the long history of Stone Hill and explored the meanings this place holds for so many. Through these experiences, I came to fully realize what a rare and wonderful responsibility we have to protect and enhance our lands for the benefit of our community, our visitors and our children's children. But above all, to maintain the Clark as a place of inspiration.

People often speak of the "experience" of the Clark. It's a place where you're able to exhale, to pause, to calm down and to reflect. It's contemplative and peaceful. But it's also a place of great vigor. Introspection inevitably leads to renewal. New ideas and exciting discoveries happen here. This is the magic of the Clark. This is what we seek to preserve and protect.

As a result, we increasingly think of the ways in which to harmonize what goes on inside with what goes on outside. When Thomas Schutte's "Crystal" was installed at the top of Stone Hill, we were curious to see how our visitors would react to this artistic intervention in the landscape. It didn't take long to figure out that people loved it, and it is now a touchstone for many who go there to sit, think, enjoy the view, and appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of this human-scaled sculptural geode.

It may surprise you to learn that my first important acquisition as the Clark's new director was not a painting, but a bee colony. Bringing bees to the campus was a way of opening us up to new possibilities and to making a new connection to the land. The bees seem happy with the arrangement, gifting us with a first harvest of honey that far exceeded anyone's expectations and giving us hopes of a thriving bee population that will add to our sustainability efforts.

Sculpture and bees. These are good starting points for us to imagine new ways to embrace the landscape and to foster our connection between art and nature. It's exhilarating to consider the possibilities that lie ahead as we think of new programs and new ways to extend the unique experience of the Clark. It's a journey of discovery for us, and we're eager to have our community, our neighbors and our visitors explore and enjoy all that's ahead.

Olivier Meslay is the Felda and Dena Hardymon Director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. He will join a panel discussion, "The Landscape of the Modern Museum," with Matthew Noyes, the Clark's grounds manager; Dr. Kim Skyrm, chief apiary inspector with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources; and David Thayer, a local beekeeper. The group will consider the role of museums in terms of community and stewardship. The free talk will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6, in the Clark's auditorium. Admission to the Clark is free that day, with a full slate of activities highlighting the Clark's bee program.


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