Beginnings

While Sterling and Francine Clark had collected art strictly for pleasure, they were interested in establishing a public art gallery for their collection. Sterling considered founding a museum in Cooperstown, New York, near his family’s home, or bequeathing everything to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but by 1946 he had decided to create a museum on property he purchased at the corner of Park Avenue and Seventy-Second Street in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, however, the Clarks resolved to build their museum outside of New York and were drawn to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
 
The Clarks had a strong familial tie to Williams College, where Sterling’s grandfather, Edward Clark (after whom the college’s Clark Hall is named), had served as a trustee from 1878 to 1882 and his father, Alfred Corning Clark, was a trustee from 1882 to 1886. Encouraged by a series of conversations with the leaders of Williams College and its art museum, Sterling and Francine Clark first visited Williamstown in the early autumn of 1949. This visit was followed by a warm and friendly correspondence between the leaders at Williams and the Clarks, who resolved to situate their museum within walking distance of the college. A charter for the new Institute was signed on March 14, 1950, just six short months after the Clarks first visited Williamstown.

Construction

In 1952 construction began on the white marble building that was to house the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. After a lengthy search process, Sterling Clark chose Daniel Perry as architect. Clark himself became highly involved in the Institute’s creation, even living in a small apartment in the back galleries of the museum when he and Francine arrived for stays in Williamstown. His desire for domestic gallery spaces is clearly manifest in the ultimate design, which included small and intimate galleries with many large windows to provide views of the nearby pond and pastures.
 
In 1955 the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors under the guidance of its first director, former silver dealer Peter Guille. There were only two galleries on view, and the majority of the works were not displayed. The Clark slowly unveiled its treasures during several exhibitions in the coming years; nonetheless, from the very beginning the Clark received critical acclaim. It was heralded in the Berkshire Evening Eagle as “a mecca of the art world” and celebrated as a “cultural asset” for Berkshire County as well as a resource for the Williams College community. The Boston Sunday Globe also praised its incredibly modern and innovative lighting and climate control systems. Even with such high praise and expectations, no one could have imagined what the Institute would become over the next half-century.
 

Growth and Change

A decade of immense change began at the Clark in 1960. Francine Clark died in April, four years after her husband, and the museum gained a significant additional endowment that enabled it to consider both new acquisitions and special programmatic initiatives in the coming years. Moreover, the Clark Professorship was established at Williams College.  The professorship attracted art historians with high levels of expertise, many of whom would prove of valuable assistance to the Clark, such as the noted Italian paintings and sculpture expert John Pope-Hennessy. Meanwhile, J. Phinney Baxter, former Williams College president; John E. Sawyer, president of Williams and a Clark trustee; Talcott Banks, future Clark board chair; and Dr. William Milliken, a leader among American museum directors, helped the Institute find its direction and take the first major step toward establishing itself as not only a museum, but also a center for research and academic programming. With the support, encouragement, and prompting of this group, the Institute enlarged its educational and research focus, embraced the academic mission of the Clark’s 1950 charter, and decided to establish a graduate program

In 1964 the Clark opened its library, now one of the finest art history libraries in North America, after purchasing the entire bibliographical holdings of art historian Dr. W. R. Juynboll with a donation from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in New York. The following year, the Duveen art reference library was added. John Sawyer and his colleagues believed that an art history library was the first requirement for establishing a graduate program.

Noted art historian George Heard Hamilton joined the Clark in June 1966 as director of the Institute and also as head of the future graduate program. He quickly instigated a change in the restrictive lending policy, allowing the Clark freedom in its exchanges with other institutions.

In 1972 the first graduate class entered the Clark in an innovative program cosponsored by Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. To this day, this rigorous two-year program affords students a thorough foundation for careers as academic and museum professionals. To accommodate such rapid growth, including an expanded library and a redirected and enlarged educational initiative, construction began on a new building, which was completed in 1973. Designed by Pietro Belluschi and The Architects Collaborative, the Manton Research Center houses a library, graduate seminar rooms, galleries, offices, and an auditorium. The auditorium allowed for the addition of children’s education programs, film and lecture series, and concert programs.

The Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory, now known as the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, [LINK to http://www.williamstownart.org]was founded on the Clark’s campus in 1977. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to conservation and other issues of collection care. That same year, David S. Brooke became director of the Institute. In 1978 the Clark founded its membership organization, Friends of the Clark, and in the 1980s the Institute began a program of significant acquisitions in many areas, including paintings, silver, prints, drawings, and the decorative arts. Important purchases during this time included Vulcan Presenting Arms to Venus for Aeneas by François Boucher, Young Christian Girl in Prayer by Paul Gauguin, and Port of Rouen: Unloading Wood by Camille Pissarro.

Present and Future

The 1990s began with the expansion of the Clark’s national and international profile through its hosting of important exhibitions, including Winslow Homer in the 1890s and The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Michael Conforti joined the Clark as director in 1994.

In 1996 an addition to the newer building was completed, which enabled the Clark to organize several major special exhibitions, such as A Passion for Renoir: Sterling and Francine Clark Collect (1996); Uncanny Spectacle: The Early Career of the Young John Singer Sargent (1997); and Jean-François Millet: Drawn into the Light (1999). Annual attendance nearly doubled during this time, and the Clark earned a reputation for relating challenging new ideas in art history scholarship to the public in visually appealing ways.
 
The Clark launched a number of new programs in the mid-1990s, including the Clark Fellows program, which enables leading academic scholars, museum professionals, and independent researchers from around the world to pursue research in art, art history, and visual culture at the Clark. The Institute also began to host symposia and conferences designed to contribute to a broader public understanding of the role of art in culture and introduced several new family-oriented programs. Moreover, partnerships with MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) have offered curatorial experience in contemporary art for graduate students through Clark-sponsored exhibitions.
 
In the late 1990s, for the first time in its history, the Clark began to collect in an entirely new area: photography. The Clarks did not personally collect photography, but the Clark has successfully acquired early photographs that relate to the Clark’s collection of paintings, prints, and drawings. These photographic acquisitions include Winslow Homer’s River Scene, Florida; Gustave Le Gray’s Brig on the Water; and Julia Margaret Cameron’s The Angel at the Sepulchre.

In January 2001, the Clark announced its master plan to preserve and develop the 140-acre campus. The goal of the master plan was to provide for the continued expansion of the Institute’s many programs and to satisfy the needs of its growing visitorship, while at the same time preserving the unique character of the Clark and its surroundings for the centuries to come.
 
That master plan comes to fruition on July 4, 2014, when the Clark celebrates its grand opening and unveils a new, architecturally stunning Visitor Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando; the thoughtful renovation and expansion of the Museum Building, designed by Selldorf Architects; and a one-acre reflecting pool, the highlight of a dramatic rethinking of the landscape designed by Reed Hilderbrand.

History

The Clark Art Institute has a rich, colorful history beginning with founder Sterling Clark’s expedition to China in 1908, his introduction to the world of collecting art in Paris in 1910, and his marriage to Francine Clary in 1919. Together, Sterling and Francine began what is now a world-renowned collection of American and European art, including prints and drawings, sculpture, decorative arts, and paintings—most notably French Impressionist masterworks by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro. They also committed to the pivotal concept of serving as not only an art museum, but also a research and academic center. The Clark’s Research and Academic Program is now considered one of the finest of its kind, awarding prestigious fellowships to established art historians and boasting a library of more than 150,000 volumes.