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Welcome to the Sterling Clark Art Bunker!

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Clark entrance

“Welcome to the bunker.”

Although I couldn’t find mention of this on the Clark website, I have always understood that the Clarks built the museum that houses their collection of Renaissance and 19th century art in Williamstown as a hedge against a  nuclear holocaust. The new manifestation of the Clark as designed by Tadao Ando, feels like a reconfiguring of post-war Berlin — the WALL is everywhere present and a dominant component of the design, but completely useless in this setting, as no art can be hung on it.

clark art

This is the view of the museum from the parking lot.

When I drove up the the Clark, a place I know well, I was first thwarted by my efforts to find the entrance to the building. The side that faces the road is not the current entrance. First I found the parking lot, and then I was directed by a long, useless, not beautiful, wasteful granite wall to the glass entry doors. The glass doors so confounded some visitors that they crashed into them headlong, and the Clark had to cover them with warning stencils. Through the glass doors I found myself in a huge glass atrium – or corporate tollbooth. No art is present in this room. One wall is lined with ticket sellers, as many, it seems, as you would find in MOMA.

What I saw when I entered was a view of the reflecting pool. While I am usually a sucker for a water feature, this vast shallow pool made me think of all the issues the Modern Museum in Stockholm had; set over a body of water, it closed a year after it opened due to the damage the moisture inflicted on the art. The early renderings of this water feature showed families skating on it. I thought — oh great, the art isn’t enough of a draw, they have to make an amusement park out of the place. And then, too, I hated the thought of looking at art while hearing the careening skaters scream. Happily, I have heard that this part of the plan has been scratched.

Before I got out of the lobby, I already had a sinking feeling. The Clark was closed for several years, during the renovation, and all they have to show for it is a lobby that looks as though it is going to be impossible to heat and cool, a new museum shop and a cafeteria. Oh yes, there is one small gallery to the right of the entrance. The gallery is more glass than wall space — never a good idea. They will end up having to either cover the glass or remove important pieces to protect them from light damage, as they have sometime had to do in their galleries on The Hill. More gallery space has been built below ground, but these were not open the day I visited.

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To the left of the lobby is a long hallway that mimics the long granite wall that you pass on you way into the museum. It is followed by “the wall of shame”, where donors are listed on plaques that are larger or smaller depending upon the amount of the gift.

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At the end of the “hall of shame” is another corporate looking lobby with no art, but very comfy chairs where you can sit and look at the reflecting pool, which ends with a view of another Wall.

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After passing through an enormous marble wall, which I assume is actually the exterior of the original Clark building, you can finally enter the bunker and  your reward is a view of the elevator! I don’t know where this elevator goes, if it is to downstairs galleries (closed the day I visited), or to storage. It had an enormous capacity, so either it is meant to convey bus loads of people at a time, or to move vastly heavy sculpture. The elevator was not running while I was there, but I wondered what it would be like to look at the Homers and Remingtons while this was clammoring between floors in the middle of the gallery.

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Once through the elevator gallery I was back in the original Clark building. These galleries, which were always intimate, now seemed terribly small, claustrophobic, and dark. I don’t know if it was because there were so many visitors, they had repainted the galleries darker colors, or they had perhaps lowered the ceilings. I stumbled through trying to reorient myself to the new layout. I found myself at the entrance to the Manton Research Center, but that too seemed to be closed for rehanging.

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David Smith

I left the building and took the golf cart up the hill to the Lunder Center on Stone Hill, where there was an exhibition of David Smith sculptures and spray paintings. These galleries are simple enough to allow the art to speak for itself, but again the windows have occasionally been problematic. There is a patio where you can have a sandwich, but if you think you can sit and enjoy the view of the Berkshires, think again. You will find that as you sit, the only thing that is at eye lever is . . . wait for it . . . a concrete Wall!

David Smith

I have my prejudices about museum architecture. Personally I think that the New York Guggenheim looks like a parking garage  that would function better as a jewelry boutique. (OK shoot me.) I do get the value of having a signature building that draws visitors — why else would anyone go to Bilbao. But my favorite museums are the ones that put the art first. Where you are given ample space to contemplate the work under ideal lighting; where the building disappears and the art takes center stage. None of that happens here. The museum website features a beautiful shot of the new addition as seen from across the reflecting pond, but at no time during my visit was I given the same view.  And the staffing requirements for the new space seemed excessive (to say nothing of expensive.)

I love the Clark. I am happy that we have their significant collection here. I was indifferent to their two previous buildings, but this version, perhaps because of the scale, seems tragic. Perhaps when I see all the galleries open and how it operates over time, I will modify my opinion. Until then – welcome to the bunker.

 

 

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