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Clark Exhibition Looks Back At Past 20 Years

A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute highlights a 20-year period of growth and expansion for the Williamstown museum.While the exterior of the Clark may be the museum’s most recognizable change in recent memory thanks to a $145 million expansion unveiled last year, what’s inside is truly the driving force. And the Clark is hoping to hone that message through an exhibition titled An Eye for Excellence.

“If you walk through the museum building, you will see many, many beautiful things that were acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark and left here,” Morris said. “But you will see almost as many that were acquired by the Clark since 1955 and many of the signature pieces were acquired in the last 20 years.”

As interim senior curator Kathleen Morris hinted at, the Clark’s founders opened the museum in 1955 with 3,341 objects. Now the galleries are filled with some of the more than 9,700 pieces in the current collection. Nearly one quarter of the entire stock was acquired from 1995 to today. These past 20 years are represented in the new exhibit, which describes how the Clark was able to get its hands on paintings, drawings, sculptures and decorative arts from the 16th to 20th century. Curator Jay Clarke explains that works come through purchases and donations.

“Purchases take a long time,” Clarke explained. “We do a lot of research into what it is that the collection needs or if there’s a particular work of art that we’ve been looking for for a long time. Sometimes you have to wait five, 10 years to find a good example of that particular work. So we’ll go to art fairs either in Europe or the U.S. and we’ll find works of art that we’re interested in purchasing. Then we come back here and do a lot of research. Sometimes we go to other museums to do comparative research. Then we bring the work here if it’s in excellent condition and really the best of breed. Then we will go through the process of acquisition here which is itself a rather long, but very productive process.”

One of the more eye catching items and interesting stories featured is that of a 19th century Steinway decorative piano. It was acquired in 1997 at an auction, rare for the Clark, by then-director Michael Conforti for more than $1 million. In the late 19th century, press reports valued the instrument at $50,000, making it the most expensive piano ever made. Morris has the keys to the rest of the story.

“The decoration was designed by the English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema,” Morris said. “It was made for a mansion in New York City owned by a man named Henry Marquand. He was designed and decorating his mansion and he wanted to get the best decorations by the best artists. He could afford to pay whatever he wanted to. So he commissioned Alma-Tadema to design him a music room and basically gave him a blank check to spend however much it took to make it the specifications and level of craftsmanship and design that Alma-Tadema felt was appropriate.”

Part of the reason 1995 to 2015 was chosen is that it coincides with the tenures of Conforti and former senior curator Richard Rand. During this period, the museum acquired roughly 1,000 photographs. As Clarke explains, it’s artwork largely not found in the museum’s initial collection.

“The Clarks themselves did not buy photographs, but we thought it was a very important part of the history of art to include in our collection,” Clarke said. “So we started building a collection that’s quite parallel to our paintings, sculptures and decorative arts which is to say American, French, British and German during the first 100 years of photography.”

The exhibit also showcases the Clark’s collection of 4,800 artist books. One by Richard Long features paper whose pulp is made from mud from rivers around the world, including the Hudson.

The exhibit opens Oct. 25th and runs through April 10th.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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