Michael Conforti of Clark Art Institute
Surveying a Remarkable Legacy
By: Charles Giuliano - Jan 19, 2021
Charles Giuliano You did graduate work at Harvard and its Fogg Art Museum. Can we discuss your peers, professors, and the traditional focus on connoisseurship?
Michael Conforti I was not the typical graduate student of the time as I had left Trinity College in 1968 and gone to work for Sotheby’s in London. After a year and a half there cataloguing furniture and sculpture, I started the New York branch of their recently organized training program, one that over time developed into the Sotheby’s Institute that’s still in operation. I left Sotheby’s after only three years and entered Harvard’s graduate program. I was 26. Those three years of art world and auction house experience made me a bit different from my colleagues. I had acquired a somewhat superficial worldliness that I would be embarrassed to be reminded of today.
CG Who were your professors at Harvard? What impact did they have on your practice?
MC I was in Cambridge from 1971-74. I worked with a number of professors including Sydney Freedberg (1914-1997) the great Italian Renaissance scholar and John Coolidge (1913-1995) former Fogg Director (1948-1972) and board president of the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He was an architectural historian. They ended up being my thesis advisors. I also had a seminar in contemporary art with Michael Fried which is a course I remember particularly well. Another influential seminar was with Henry (Hank) Millon at MIT. Hank went on to become the Director of the American Academy in Rome and was Director when I first became involved as a Fellow of the Academy (I’ve remained close to the Academy over the years as a both a Trustee and Resident). In the late 90s I asked Hank to join the Board of the Clark to help energize our academic arm. By that time, he had been Dean of Center for Advancement in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery in Washington for well over a decade. He was CASVA’s first Dean and was a very effective Clark Board member. I remained close to him over the years.
Hank himself was a student in architectural history of my thesis advisor John Coolidge. I only audited John Coolidge’s course on museums, but through him I connected with the Museum of Fine Arts and took a course with Hanns Swarzenski, the curator of medieval and decorative arts. With Coolidge’s help I also interviewed with the director, Merrill Rueppel, for an internship at the museum, but after finishing my oral exams, I went to Rome. I had planned to be there for six months, but remained for three years, a period that included a two-year fellowship at the American Academy.
CG The Fogg was noted for an emphasis on connoisseurship. How did that shape you?
MC The early 1970s were a time of transition, a transition that continued through the 1980s when there were strong and what seemed at the time to be revolutionary changes in the Harvard Fine Arts Department. When I was there the museum course had certainly evolved and was hardly what it had been in the past. Agnes Mongan was still accessible as an emeritus curator of prints and drawings. (Agnes Mongan, 1905-1996, was a pioneering woman in her field. She was a “keeper” of prints and drawings at a time when women were denied the status of curators. From 1951 to 1964, she held the position of assistant director, from 1964 to 1968 associate director, and from 1968 to 1969 acting director, and from 1969 to 1971 Director.
CG Under Paul Sachs a generation of notable museum directors were trained. What was left of that legacy?
MC There was a slight link to the Sachs course of the past, but it was really only a romantic reflection of Sachs’s museum training course by that time. Coolidge was not at all a “connoisseur” as Sachs was. There was a closeness to object analysis in various departments, but the strong connoisseurship-oriented course that Sachs had started in the 1920s had somewhat petered out. There were always possibilities of internships within departments, however, especially in prints and in drawings, and there was closeness to connoisseurship through both formal and informal exchanges in the conservation lab.
CG What was your relationship with objects? In courses did you work with resources in the Fogg collection? How did you approach the material?
MC There were opportunities for interaction with objects, particularly if you took those few courses which were specifically focused on close looking at real works of art. While Sydney Freedberg was viewed as a “connoisseur”, his courses were more oriented to theories of style than to an analysis of objects themselves. There were, however, opportunities to work with him in an almost informal way, particularly looking closely at objects in the conservation lab. The most connoisseurship-oriented course I took was with Hanns Swarzenski at the MFA. There was a quite direct exchange around objects in that seminar.
CG Can we talk about the development of your “eye?”
MC That happened first at Sotheby’s. Many people say that the opportunity of working for an auction house affords the best and widest experience of working with objects. You deal with monetary values, yes, but they are inevitably linked to aesthetic value. You become familiar with attribution, that is who made the object, where things were made and how they were made. It was and is an active setting for working with objects, more so than at Harvard then and now.
CG Did that become useful when you later became a museum director?
MC Yes. Starting as a museum curator after the American Academy in Rome (where I completed a dissertation on late Baroque Italian sculpture for Harvard) my first job was as the curator of sculpture and decorative arts for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (it was easier to get jobs in those days and I was made head of a curatorial department immediately). My experience in an auction house proved to be as important as my experience in academia both in the organization of exhibitions as well as in acquiring objects for the museum and we bought a lot during those years in the late 1970s.
CG What is the difference between scholarship and acquisitions? They appear to be different sensibilities. Scholars don’t generally attach monetary values to their research and appreciation of objects they work with. The art market is focused on the value of objects.
MC Connoisseurship in its purest form is today not a valued subject in the academic world. The practicality of being a curator, acquiring objects, cataloguing and encouraging collectors to develop their own collections and to consider your institution for the final home of those collections, that’s not taught within academic environments. Knowing objects, how they are made, materially, technically, who might have made them, the context in which they are made, they’re all important factors for working as a curator of historical art objects in museums. You acquire a great deal of such knowledge by being in a large curatorial department, places like the Metropolitan Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum. I was an intern at both these institutions, but not for a very long time. I interned in the sculpture and decorative arts department at The Met, then, for a longer period, in the sculpture department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Those experiences represent my curatorial training ground and each enhanced my first work experience of being at Sotheby’s.
CG There was a paradigm shift in the study of art history from objects and iconography to philosophy, deconstruction and semiotics. The young generation of curators and critics approach objects theoretically. That has resulted in artspeak influencing the creation of work and exhibitions that are ever more remote for viewers and audiences. Add to that, mandates for inclusion and diversity. It’s generational, but makes me feel ever more disoriented and disconnected to most contemporary art.
You studied with Fried who evolved from Clement Greenberg’s formalism. At the time, that was the dominant approach during an era when abstract art and color field painting prevailed. How did his teaching impact your approach to contemporary art?
MC The academic shift you are referencing started in the late 1960s and 1970s. It really took hold in the 1980s and was embraced strongly at Harvard with the arrival of Tim Clark in the early 1980s, fundamentally changing the department’s academic foundation. As that period continued, there and elsewhere, there was a theoretical turn to art history evident at many institutions around the world. In the past decade there’s been a return to the material, the empirical from a theory alone focus. We haven’t gone back to connoisseurship as we might have thought of it in the pre 1960s, but there’s a greater appreciation of the specificity of how things are made, their materiality along with a rethinking of historical contexts compared to twenty or more years ago. Even with that new reality, students still best experience what was called “connoisseurship” by working in museum departments or in the art market.
As far as Michael Fried’s influence is concerned, I don’t know how to express it simply, but it’s there. I still see him occasionally as he has a house not far from Williamstown. He’s here in the summer-time. He was and is an important force in art criticism and history with a critical sensibility that’s highly refined and forcefully expressed. Artists current and past are lucky to have such intellect and passion focused on analyzing their work. As a person in the arts, living in our time, I’m engaged in contemporary art even if it’s not my specific field. I owe that in large part to Michael Fried as well as my time being with artists at the American Academy in Rome. Some of my former students at Williams have gone on to complete Ph.D. theses on artists that are still alive. That’s a change and it would never have happened when I was younger. It’s a reality of our moment, this current and extraordinary interest in the contemporary.
CG My former professor, Carl Chiarenza, was not only one of the first to earn a Ph.D on photography, but Aaron Siskind, a then living photographer. He has described to me the difficulty he had in getting his thesis project approved at Harvard. It was then unprecedented to write on a living artist.
MC That was the case when I was there. Specific professors, Fried was one, would take on students who were interested in contemporary art. And not just “contemporary”, but 20th century art as a whole. The world has changed. For example as I planned the physical future of the Clark, I needed to make sure that there would be space large enough for programming contemporary art. Any addition to a museum constructed at this moment in time has to make sure that it can accommodate the contemporary in some way. That wasn’t an ambition of the Clark which I inherited when I become director in the mid-90s. In fact, I began a “Clark @MASSMoCA” series of partnership programs in 1995 believing that that would be the best way for the Clark to both support contemporary programming and help the still nascent MASS MoCA in the process. I didn’t see the Clark itself as a site for contemporary programming at that time.
CG A factor in more scholarship of contemporary art as thesis topics has to do with the market. In 1980, the Whitney Museum paid $1 million for the Jasper Johns painting “Three Flags” (1958). That changed the notion of value for a living artist.
(The current auction record price is $91.1 million for Jeff Koons's 1986 sculpture, “Rabbit,” in May, 2019. The most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction is David Hockney's 1972 “Portrait of an Artist” at $90.3 million in 2018. Overall, the highest known price paid for an artwork by a living artist was for Jasper Johns' 1958 painting “Flag.” The 2010 sale price was estimated to be about $110 million.)
Contemporary art has become so valuable that the market has impacted art history. That has trumped the timeframe of when artists and their works evolve into the canon. It is no longer confined to the deceased. They are the living immortals exempt from the affirmation of time. Andy Warhol was 58 when he died in 1986. The auction record for a Warhol is $71.7 million, for "Green Car Crash." There seems to be an industry of scholars and publications about his work. The same is true of Jasper Johns.
In one of our earlier dialogues you discussed the special exhibitions strategy for the Clark. Until then the focus, reflecting the permanent collection, was largely on impressionism and post impressionism. This was the norm for blockbuster museum shows. You stated that museums had to advance the time line to modern and postmodern art to attract a new and younger generation of museum audiences. Since our conversation about programming, The Clark has mounted shows of Picasso and Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and more recently, the African artist, El Anatsui.
MC Yes, I stressed that at the time and continue to feel that way. It’s important to say, however, that while the Clark is doing more diverse exhibition programming now, it will always be best known for the late 19th century paintings in its permanent collection.
CG Can we go back to your impressions of early years at the MFA and contact with Hanns Swarzenski and Merrill Rueppel.
MC I am in no way an expert on the subject. In the 1960s and 1970s there were different ways in which I came in contact with the MFA. There are some things I would mention. When I was working at Sotheby’s I bought a little house in Starksboro, Vermont, with a friend. One day a neighbor came over to say hello. It happened to be John Coolidge’s sister. She vacationed in a pair of beautifully-sited cabins on a property almost next to ours. I told her that I was going off to Harvard the next year and she mentioned that her brother, John Coolidge, taught there and that her husband was Walter Muir Whitehill. (1905-1978, a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts and author of Museum of Fine Arts Boston; A Centennial History in 1970.)
I visited them for many years after that, often where they lived in the winter in North Andover, Massachusetts, as well as in Vermont. Whitehill had been a historian of Boston generally as well as of the museum as you know. He had a strong perspective on museums and I would say a conservative one. He and John Coolidge (1913-1995) had often been on opposite sides of arguments in relation to the future of the MFA.
CG I am writing an oral history of the MFA. It is only the second such study. For the first hundred years I relied on the Whitehill two volume centennial publication. Coolidge became a pivotal figure in the period of chaos that followed the untimely resignation of Perry T. Rathbone in June, 1972. What can you tell me about Coolidge. He was president, after George Seybolt resigned and during the tumultuous, three year administration of Merrill Rueppel. When he was fired Coolidge was replaced by former MIT president, Howard Johnson.
MC As I’ve said, I studied with Coolidge at Harvard. He was somewhat of an intellectual renegade. Maybe that’s too strong a phrase, but he was always trying to think outside the box. He also looked at ways that the MFA might be different in the future, to be more innovative like museums in the rest of the country and not frozen in time by being caught in Boston’s Brahmin traditions. That included traditional connoisseurship as we’ve discussed it and the museum’s then somewhat singularly focused object-oriented curatorial departments. He wanted to modernize the museum. When he finally became president, he brought these views to his position on the board. He’s the one who went to Dallas and encouraged Merrill Rueppel to come.
CG Was this after the interview between then board president, George Seybolt, and Rueppel? The museum was considering a number of candidates and allegedly Seybolt preempted the search committee and offered the job to Rueppel.
MC Coolidge may not have understood the MFA from the inside well enough to help the people he brought in, like Rueppel, to actually succeed. He was a thoughtful, intellectual overseer, but he seemed to have believed that if he recruited certain kinds of people, change would automatically happen. In two distinct cases in the early 1970s, he was responsible for unfortunately short directorial tenures, both at the Fogg Art Museum and at the MFA. In each case the directors lasted two to three years running into conflict from conservative forces uncomfortable with change. The staff infrastructure of each museum was not as willing to embrace change as Coolidge had hoped and he didn’t prepare the ground for these directors to succeed. That’s the story of Daniel Robbins’s directorship at the Fogg and Merrill Rueppel’s at the MFA.
CG Was Whitehill a factor in the short tenure of Rueppel?
MC I think probably not in spite of his being decidedly conservative in his views on museums. The kinds of changes that Rueppel imagined in Boston were first executed at a much younger institution, the Dallas Museum of Art, where he had been director. Similar changes were not going to be easily adapted to a museum with a complex and siloed curatorial staff, one with long-held traditions like the MFA’s.
CG What insights of the MFA do you recall from that time of transition and turmoil?
MC I was in San Francisco and Minneapolis during the time of Jan Fontein (MFA director 1975-1987) but I knew and worked in Minneapolis for the short-term next Boston director Alan Shestack (I was Chief Curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art from 1980-94 a period which included Alan Shestack’s 1985-87 directorship. I liked Minneapolis a lot by the way. I got married there and our two children were born there). I was close to Alan and after he went to Boston I often listened to his complaints about the difficult relationship he had with his Board chair at the time. But significant change at the MFA didn’t really come until Malcolm Rogers’s directorship (MFA director 1994-2015). It began as a fraught time from the perspective of the museum world, certainly at the very beginning. He forced out established curators and signaled change in the exhibition program by organizing, among other things, the work of Herb Ritts, a blockbuster exhibition of a populist photographer. There were a lot of things that happened in the late 1990s that some museum professionals looked askance on, but he captured the imagination of the philanthropic community and over time that brought Boston to a different and higher level in terms of philanthropic support. The museum had had very difficult financial challenges in the 1980s both during Jan Fontein and Alan Shestack’s directorships, but by the early 2000s there was enough financial support that the museum could plan new large scale capital projects.
CG It’s a complex issue and era which I have been trying to analyze and put forward. The centennial year, 1970, is critical to the narrative. The Raphael scandal surfaced and led to the resignation of Rathbone by 1972. It may have been handled differently, but Seybolt seized on it to oust Rathbone. That opened the possibility of change. The board formed an Ad Hoc Committee which produced a report that evaluated the museum, identified key problems, and created a blueprint for development and change. That included the need for renovation, new construction, and climate control.
Seybolt stepped down as board president and became head of the museum’s first capital campaign. Issues of its isolated image, transparency, and community inclusion were broached. The museum formed a relationship with the National Center of Afro American Artists.
Coolidge became board president at the same time that Rueppel was appointed director. They were focused on working together to implement aspects of the Ad Hoc report. Facing internal resistance, and suffering from an abrasive management style, Rueppel was not up to the task. Curators formed a cabal and leaked to the Globe which investigated. When that was published Rueppel was gone within the week and took down Coolidge.
Howard Johnson, a board member, was persuaded to become board president. Jan Fontein was named acting director. They formed a working relationship. Ross Farrar, a businessman, became Associate Director of the museum. He continued what Seybolt had started. As board president, Seybolt had demanded office space and two secretaries. There were daily memos and meetings that Rathbone had to respond to. It was a new way of running a museum as a business.
Rueppel was attempting to professionalize the museum. Traditionally, curators and their departments were independent. They answered to Rathbone but enjoyed great latitude. That entailed outside teaching and compensation for consulting with collectors, dealers and auction houses. Rueppel ran into conflict when he demanded that they work full time and exclusively for the museum. Part of that was a modest salary increase. They went to the Globe with their complaints. Given time the director might have made changes but the Globe nixed that. The museum lost a generation of what would have been internal reform and community outreach. It remained the isolated, elitist, Brahmin institution that Seybolt, Coolidge and Rueppel attempted to transform.
You may recall that Edgar Peters Bowron attempted to professionalize the Fogg. He wanted to have the curators working full time for the museum. The Fogg under Bowron (1985-1990) was more accessible to the media and public but there was resistance. He was followed by James Cuno (1991-2002) who seemingly put the house back in order.
MC All good points.
CG Those efforts to professionalize museums failed. The curators wanted to retain sources for outside income. Traditionally, being a museum curator was regarded as a respected position for an independently wealthy gentleman. Salaries were accordingly modest.
MC Regarding the idea of dollar-a-year curators, you should investigate that further. Bottom line, however, compensation issues aside, curators were first and foremost deeply rooted in the tradition of caring for and understanding their collections. They were also protecting the way things had always been done in their departments and they were skeptical of change. They were buoyed in their beliefs by the fact that they were working for one of the greatest art museums in this country. The MFA’s object centered curatorial departments were as good as any in the world. Given their expertise and the responsibility they took seriously of overseeing their collections, they were always going to be uncomfortable with change. The maintenance of past values was represented by conservative trustees such as Walter Whitehill in opposition to his progressive brother-in-law, John Coolidge, yes, but, as you say, it was the curators who seemed to ultimately controlled the direction of the museum at the time – or to limit its redirection at least.
I am a little confused by your comments on Coolidge. I had seen George Seybolt around but felt that Coolidge had a stronger role in the early 1970s. I know he was strongly involved in the appointment of Rueppel. You say that Seybolt was president, but why do I have it in my head that Coolidge was president around that time? I could have held a wrong idea for a long period. Seybolt’s corporate style would have been endorsed by Coolidge who felt that museums had to be divested of the singular and uncompromising power of collection curators. It was through the appointment of directors that he saw that these changes could be made, but I suspect he also endorsed Seybolt’s corporate style manner and vision.
CG That institutional narrative is complex and not well documented. Seybolt was the abrasive board president who put his man Rueppel in place. He then yielded to Coolidge while he went off to Washington, D. C. with an important new roles as a lobbyist for museums. He was an architect for change at the MFA but did not stay on to see it implemented. Things fell apart.
MC However correct you or I are, you see, as I do, that such changes eventually would alter the power of curators within the institution. One could say that the trend began at the Metropolitan Museum under Thomas Hoving in the early 1970s, but it was famously advanced internationally at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s when director Elizabeth Esteve-Coll fired a number of curatorial department heads causing a world-wide outcry.
The goal was to take control of the institution away from curators and distribute it to other, more publicly centered departments. That became an ambition of the MFA a bit later and, while it transpired in different ways over time, Malcolm Rogers was more effective in making this change than anyone previously. Whether you believe that the diffusion of curatorial authority is a desirable goal or not, it’s been an evolutionary characteristic of art museums with historical collections over these past decades. It played out in Boston in a way that was specific to them, but there are parallels everywhere in art museums both in the U.S. and Europe.
.CG Regarding the point of curators as men of means. During the time of Rathone/ Fontein, Robert Treat Paine was head of the Asiatic department, Cornelius Vermeule, for Classical and William Kelly Simpson for the Egyptian department. They were men of means.
There is a long, transcribed interview with Rathbone in the Archives of American Art in which he takes pride in having appointed Vermeule and Simpson. He also discussed Coolidge.
MC What did he say?
CG Here is an excerpt from the Archives of American Art interview.
(Perry Rathbone: "Well, I'll tell you what I think, because I think John Coolidge has yearned for power all his professional life and he never had very much. You know, he was director of the Fogg Museum and before that he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but he never was in the big league, so to speak, making big decisions. But Seybolt saw that John Coolidge was somebody who could be influenced by power. He was and Seybolt needed the academic garments of Coolidge and the Coolidge Brahmin association, very much indeed. So, this is how that, in my opinion happened, I mean you wouldn't find this in any book.
"He supported Coolidge's ambitions and Coolidge gave him the kind of respectability that Seybolt sorely needed. That's the way I see the combination. And you see the trustees who are really clear minded about this will say the very same things that I'm saying, and, and they're so disgusted…. In this country, you can go to the top of anything if you're willing to do the dirty work, and Seybolt was willing to do the dirty work…
"Publicity, publicity, the rest of the trustees don't need that, didn't want it anyway. Their names were well enough known. They know the director or chancellor of MIT doesn't need to do that, for example, Walter Whitehill doesn't have to do that. And then the others don't care. But he (Seybolt) cared and he does to this day. But John Coolidge, after the debacle of Rueppel, which is a very sad thing and I think the trustees ought to be ashamed to have put the man through the agony they did. Don't think he didn't inflict agony upon the staff, he certainly did, but it all goes back, really, to the trustees and principally, to Seybolt, or the kind of leadership that he provided."
CG The sense, perhaps from Belinda Rathbone’s book, was that Coolidge betrayed Perry. (“The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change & a Daughter's Search for the Truth”) He was on the board when Seybolt moved to oust him. There is no sense that Coolidge backed Perry and he came into power when Rathbone was removed. There were comments that Coolidge aspired to become director.
Rathbone resisted sharing power with Seybolt and had a gentleman’s agreement with the curators. They functioned like Knights of the Round Table. As director, Rathbone functioned as de facto chief curator with painting as his domain. Belinda describes Perry visiting Vermeule when he was excavating in Greece. Often there were curators at their dinner table. Perry frequently traveled in Europe with Swarzenski as his consigliore. Through close relations with dealers, they made prescient acquisitions. Rueppel had an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with curators who questioned his credentials and lack of scholarly publications.
MC Being both Director and Chief Curator was not unusual for museum directors in his generation. It’s still often the case at mid-size and smaller museums. Rathbone came out of the Sachs museum studies program, and the connoisseurship tradition then strong at Harvard that we have been discussing. The position of director as chief curator was strongly in that mold.
As I have said, the Met had a different trajectory given Thomas Hoving’s directorship that began the late 1960s until he was encouraged to resign in 1977. He had started to shake the tree of curatorial authority and in some ways was taken down because of it. Phillippe de Montebello succeeded him and you could argue that Philippe’s long-term success stemmed from maintaining the power of curators while expressing his own strong museum leadership through force of personality. The Met has been financially secure enough to expand in broad programmatic ways while maintaining the centrality and the power of traditional curatorial departments. The Met didn’t extend the revolution of Hoving’s years, but things are beginning to change now albeit in subtle ways.
CG Wasn’t there an administrative director, a CFO, that Philippe managed to get rid of? Didn’t he discuss that during his lecture which you hosted at the Clark?
MC It took time. He had to work under a paid president who was the Chief Executive Officer. Slowly, by the 1990s, he became CEO as well. It took him a decade plus to gain that control, however. Anne D’Harnoncourt had the same situation at the Philadelphia Museum. She also had to work under a paid president. They both eventually worked their way out of having to submit to the authority of an administrator.
CG Considering your dense resume you have had many positions and honors. The pattern merges that your field is museums and museology.
MC I think that’s right. I’ve written on various aspects of the history of museums and issues in museum policy and ethics. I’ve taught and continue to teach a seminar each spring in the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. I began to address museums historically in the 1980s while I was a curator in Minneapolis when Rick Brettell, who just passed away unfortunately, asked me to join him on a panel at a College Art Association convention and talk about Thomas Hoving’s directorship. I wrote on Hoving’s directorship in 1986 about a decade after he had left the Met.
Of the forty and more years that I’ve been in the field, I see the period we are in as the most difficult and challenging of times. The issues are not entirely Covid related I might add. There is a revolutionary element at the staff level at this moment stemming on the one hand from ethical concerns, on the other from salary disputes. It remains to be seen how these issues will play out over time.
CG You were president of the Association of Art Museum Directors.
MC Yes, from 2008 to 2010.
CG What did you do?
MC It was then a moment of transition. The AAMD presidency is usually a one-year term but I stayed for two because they were transitioning executive directors at that time. Because of the 2008 financial crisis deaccessioning was an active issue, particularly the question of how money from deaccessioning was allowed to be used by an institution. The National Academy of Design in New York was selling work to cover operating expenses. It was the year subsequent to the crash.
(In 2008, an outcry arose when the academy sold two important Hudson River School paintings to pay its bills, resulting in sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors.)
But I don’t think that time was more challenging than the one we are in now.
CG In addition to the economic devastation of the Covid pandemic there have been mandates for institutional changes to the Black Live Matter movement.
MC Yes. It’s a larger story with many manifestations. One of them relates to the question of curatorial authority that we have been discussing. If we can go back to the days before the 1980s, you had curators who interpreted objects for the public in catalogues and essays and also in labels to be put up in galleries. One of the issues that has surfaced over the past couple of decades is the questioning of the right of curators alone to tell those stories. We’ve seen this change evolve slowly, that is the sharing of the narration and asking for participation from voices other than the more often than not “white privileged” curatorial staff, museums have begun asking representatives of the cultures and identities of objects shown in the galleries to express their voice in gallery labels and associated publications. The influence of the Black Lives Matter movement can be associated with that trend, but it’s manifested in many other ways as well. Is the canon of what we consider “art” to be exhibited in museums going to continue to be white male dominated? Should we sell objects manifesting the aesthetic values of the past to pay for new acquisitions executed by those whose gender and race that have been left out of collections we currently hold in museums? These questions are only some examples of what is being discussed now in museums and it’s happening in the context of a much wider devaluation of the singular authoritative voice of the museum in a period like ours that is more skeptical of institutions generally than at any moment in the past.
Does that make sense to you?
CG Yes. That describes the recent decision of the Baltimore Museum art to deaccession major works by Clifford Still, Andy Warhol and Brice Marden for diversity acquisitions and to increase staff salaries. That was made possible because of a decision of AAMD. Responding to the Covid crisis, they suspended sanctions of deaccessions for other than acquisitions. Baltimore was the first major museum to take advantage of this policy.
(Under pressure from art world professionals the Baltimore Museum recently cancelled three sales that were projected to raise some $65 million.)
As a board member of the Philip Guston Foundation you are in the thick of these issues.
(Because of the inclusion of paintings satirically depicting cartoonish Ku Klux Klansmen, the scheduled Guston exhibition has been postponed by the National Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts and Tate Modern. After discussion and programming adjustments the exhibition has been rescheduled opening at the MFA in 2022.)
MC I’ve been a close observer of this controversy and have long been a friend of Kaywin Feldman the director of the National Gallery. She has been a frequent guest speaker in my Williams/Clark museum seminar. She succeeded me as president of AAMD and I know her very well – we also have the Minneapolis connection having both worked there though at different times. I know what she’s going through, but I’ve not talked with her directly about the exhibition postponement. I spoke with her before the Guston controversy broke about a lot of other issues, mostly deaccessioning issues. That was a conversation in which I didn’t bring up Guston and she may not have known that I was on the Guston Foundation board. Shortly after our conversation, the Guston exhibition postponement was announced and there was an immediate outcry, but she and I haven’t spoken about it.
I can simply say, however (because I know her and her values, am familiar with history of the National Gallery, and appreciate and support the Guston exhibition supporters’ perspective), that she’s using the postponement as an opportunity for her institution to evolve to a point where it can embrace a difficult topic and do so in an institutionally unscathed fashion. There she is, Director of the National Gallery on the Mall in Washington, an organization that has not changed very much in the past few decades, an organization representative of values past, shall we say. She wants to see the institution change. I think she sees that there’s an opportunity to use the preparation for the interpretation of the Guston show as a way for her whole organization to rethink the way it addresses potentially difficult issues raised by recent art. And such a rethink may be necessary given the Gallery’s history as well as its reality as a national, Washington based institution.
CG I read an interview with her and felt that she was approaching the Guston issues with sensitivity. From afar it’s easy to demonize her and the decision to postpone the exhibition. But she didn’t come across that negatively.
It was shocking to learn, however, that the National Gallery, just now in 2020, is appointing their first person of color to the board of trustees.
MC Remember that the board is only five people. It has never been a community centered board. I do know this, and it is not widely known, that when one of Guston’s early images of Klansmen from the 1930s, when he was living in Los Angeles, was put on view at the Gallery in the early 1980s as part of a temporary exhibition, there was a rumbling among the guards. Many were critical of showing any work depicting the Klan in the museum. (The guards are dominantly persons of color in Washington, D.C.’s museums.)
They found the image offensive, not fully appreciating (or not caring) that it was a critique from a young Jewish artist,. They were just not comfortable with having images of the Klan in the National Gallery. The curator at the time who told me this story “got that” and I believe that it didn’t remain on view.
That happened in the early 1980s and there is every reason to believe that there could have been a similar reaction to some of Guston’s works at this moment. That gave support to the Gallery’s rethinking the scheduling of the exhibition. You could say that in spite of the fact that money from the government to the Gallery comes without strings, we have been in a Trump moment and a period of heightened of racial tension.
You could argue, and the Gallery is arguing, that mounting a Guston show many months from now when the Gallery is more prepared to address potential criticism through heightened interpretive preparedness justifies the postponement. As they see it, the preparation for the exhibition can also be a catalyst to address the kinds of institutional change that Kaywin feels is necessary.
I’m disappointed that the exhibition didn’t happen on schedule, very disappointed in fact. I don’t, however, see this situation as parallel to the Mapplethorpe exhibition cancelling years ago with the accusations of censorship that that cancellation raised at the Corcoran. The Gallery has appointed a new diversity officer who is a charge of addressing the issue of institutional change (a former student of mine in the Williams/Clark program in fact). The exhibition will open in March 2022 at the MFA in Boston before going to Washington.
CG Let’s reboot. In what sense did you leave the Clark better than you found it? You started in 1994 and left in 2015.
MC That remains to be seen. It’s important to note that while there was a great deal of change during my time, the period of greatest institutional enhancement at the Clark was in the 1960s. Sterling Clark had been encouraged to leave his collection in Williamstown by Williams College. The President of the College, (James) Phinney Baxter, (1893-1975) was very clear about his ambitions for the town at that time. The establishment of the Clark, as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival, resulted from that vision. They were incorporated around the same time in the mid-1950s. He saw these institutions as a way to employ the local people while students were away by bringing visitors to Williamstown during the summer months.
(Baxter won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Scientists Against Time (1946). He was also the author of The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship (1933). During World War II he served as research coordinator of information (1941-1943) and director of the Office of Strategic Services (1942-1943).)
There is a long story of how he got to know Clark. Clark’s grandfather had gone to Williams and was a significant early donor to the college. There already was a Clark Hall for geology on campus that the family, including Sterling Clark, had funded. The money was from the Singer Sewing Machine Company which Clark’s grand-father had founded with Isaac Singer in the 1850s. The money was there. It had come to Baxter that Clark was looking for a place to put his collection. They got along very well over dinners that were arranged a few times at the President’s residence. In the end Baxter arranged for two houses on South Street to be sold to Clark as a site for his museum which is why the Institute is on a side street in the town. There were two lots and the homes were razed. Clark and his architect squeezed in a white marble building on the site that opened in 1955. But Clark died not long after (1956) as did his wife (1960).
Jack Sawyer (1917-1995) became president of Williams in 1961 (until 1973). He saw great opportunity in the Clark, a kind of little tapped resource when he began his presidency. The changes that happened in the 1960s were many and they culminated in a new building now called the Manton Research Center.
(The Pietro Belluschi -designed Manton Research Center, housing the library and research programs, was completed in 1973. The Clark embarked on a long-term project in 2001 to improve its campus, enlisting the help of the landscape firm Reed Hildebrand, as well as architects Tadao Ando and Annabelle Selldorf.)
Sawyer, working with the acquiescence Clark trustees and added financial support from a foundation Clark had established in New York City, altered what had been only a “treasure house” style museum when the Clark opening in 1955. They began to buy libraries from various sources around the world and evolved this independent institution into one with close ties to Williams, independent of Williams, but one more in line with Williams’s educational mission. They planned a graduate program in the history of art. They encouraged new staff to come. The first and greatest Clark director, George Heard Hamilton (1910-2004, a Yale professor 1936-1966) was the expert in a number of fields of art including impressionism. He started the graduate program and oversaw the purchases of private libraries eventually making the Clark’s one of the largest art history libraries in the country.
Talcott Banks (1905-1983) was another interesting and influential individual at that time. A Boston lawyer with Palmer and Dodge (Sterling Clark’s legal representative in Massachusetts), he was president of the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was, therefore, involved with Tanglewood. He was also a Williams graduate and head of the board of trustees of Williams and eventually he became the Board Chair of the Clark. He decided that the Institute’s new building (Manton Research Center) could also be a site for chamber orchestras because he cared so much about music. Our lecture hall, which is one of the more beautiful interiors on our campus, was actually built for chamber music.
CG What is the relationship between Williams and the Clark. In what way was is it unique?
MC The point is that Williams became deeply committed to the Clark’s success in the 1960s. The College had encouraged Clark to leave his collection, but the ties were later deepened. Things were considered by many trustees to have plateaued in the 1970s and 80s, however, with the Clark’s library becoming a kind of a service arm for Williams, serving the faculty and graduate program only. There was a modest exhibition program and a beautiful collection on view, but over time, from the trustees’ perspective at least, it was not seen as reaching its full potential in the utilization of its library resources. When I came, I was handed a document that had been drafted four or five years prior. It was a long-term plan for development of the research arm of the Clark as seen from that early 1990s moment. The trustees wanted to expand the research side, but didn’t know quite how. That was the ambition, however, and that was my charge at the beginning of my directorship which began in November,1994.
CG Given that mandate how did you make changes from a boutique museum to a broader research, conservation and educational institution?
MC I remember thinking, and having channeled Phinney Baxter I guess, that there was a great opportunity to do more ambitious exhibitions as well and I thought they could also contribute to energizing the organization in other ways, but there needed to be a change in the physical plant to do larger exhibitions. As I was becoming director the trustees were initiating a small-scale expansion, mostly focused on the library. As a condition of my coming, I had the board agree to add about 3,000 sq. ft. to the second floor of (now) Manton and further enclose an open courtyard for extra support space. That would allow us to do larger scale exhibitions, add some offices as well as space for events including a summertime café.
Without extraordinary enthusiasm, most of the Board went along with my idea that we could do larger scale exhibitions and we expanded the building program just before construction was about to begin. When we opened those spaces in the summer of 1996, 18 months after I arrived, we started off, because we had nothing else to show, with an exhibition “The Passion for Renoir” because we had a lot of Renoirs that could be quickly adapted to a special exhibition. The next year, one of our graduate program professors, Mark Simpson, did an excellent show on the early work of John Singer Sargent. It is still one of my favorites. By the late 1990s we were on our way to creating a regular series self-organized exhibitions that not only made a contribution to the field, but brought more and more people to the Clark, especially in the summer as Baxter had once dreamed. It’s not what the board had originally asked for, but they were not unhappy.
CG What was the impact of the changes you initiated?
MC As I said, what they had asked for was better utilization of the library. In a long-range planning session around 1995 or 96, we identified the fact that there was no Clark specific profile in research. Our extraordinary library seemed only to be a resource for the Williams faculty and the students. One of our long-range planning consultants raised the idea of having a director of research, just as a museum might have a chief curator (we had just hired Richard Rand as Senior Curator around that time and he would stay for 18 years before leaving to become the associate director of collections for the Getty Museum where he is now).
CG How did you flesh out a new identity for the Clark as center for research?
MC Within a year we asked John Onians from the University of East Anglia in Britain to be head of research. We added Henry Millon to our Board of Trustees, the former professor of mine who in 1980 had begun the National Gallery’s research center in art history. John encouraged us to buy a house next to the campus that could be converted to apartments for visiting scholars.
Fairly quickly, by the late 1990s, we added significantly to the library foundation of our academic arm and created the Institute’s Research and Academic Program, separate from the Clark’s curatorial program.
It was soon to be overseen by Michael Ann Holly (Starr Director Emeritus of the Research and Academic Program having served as Director from 1999 to 2013.) who took the nascent program and made it internationally recognized. It was one of the greatest achievements of the Institute during my time as Director. A well-known and much respected art historian, Michael Ann expanded the program and made it a center for lively idea generating and dialogue associated with the study of the history of art in the broadest sense. It was soon considered along with the Getty Research Institute, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery, one the three most important centers for art historical research linked to an art museum in this country.
CG As I understand the reputation of The Clark, going back to before your tenure, it was regarded as one of the foremost and best-endowed, smaller, regional museums in America.
MC Yes, it was certainly one of the best endowed. I like to think of the Clark as one of the foremost “private collections gone public” as opposed to a “regional museum”. While it happens to be in a region, it doesn’t fit my criteria of a “regional museum” (too long for an explanation, but “regional museums” are definitely more “grass roots” than the Clark in my view). It really is an expanded private collection which happens to be in the country. It relates more to private collections made public, maybe a bit like the Gardner in Boston, more like the Huntington in Pasadena than it is a “regional museum”. In fact, Baxter mentioned the Huntington as something of a model when he spoke at the opening of the Clark in 1955.
CG Let’s discuss that collection. There are some individual works like Piero della Francesca’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels,” Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (close at Hand) to warn Steam-Boats of Shoal-Water,” but the strength is French impressionism and post impressionism. To what extent does the taste of the collectors shape the institution’s profile? Mostly, the programming of The Clark is perceived as an extension of the collection.
MC That’s a fair statement. There have been regular moves to expand beyond that core Clark collection beginning in the 1960s but Clark’s original gift, centered as it is on its great nineteenth century paintings, remains at the center of the Institute’s identity. In my early days as director we saw the collection as the catalyst for what could happen programmatically on the museum side of the Institute’s programs.
I want to emphasize here, because it’s not easily understood, that the programs generated by the Clark’s Museum Program often related to the collection and, often too, the special exhibitions we organized. These Museum Program activities should be understood as separate from those of the Research and Academic Program, which can be much more experimental and theoretical, in part because those programs are not linked to the collection.
That’s one of the strengths of the Research and Academic Program at the Clark. It’s independent and it generates ideas stemming from a wide variety of questions in the visual arts. Those programs can relate to the collection at times, but they don’t have to. That’s what gives it life and has made the Research and Academic Program so admired. It’s sometimes hard for the general public and casual visitors to recognize that the Clark has a dual mission as a both a research center on the one hand and an art museum on the other.
CG When the Clark closed for renovation, as one might say, you paraded the relics. Highlights of the collection were shown all over the world. A question is the cost that entails. Which brings up George Seybolt and his effort to lobby Congress to create The Institute of Museum and Library Services to indemnify the insurance costs for traveling exhibitions. He pursued that after his tenure as board president of the Museum of Fine Arts.
MC I’m not sure he was the one. The indemnification of exhibitions grew out of the National Endowment for the Arts that Nancy Hanks (1927-1983) oversaw – she was its second chairperson. (IMLS was established by the Museum and Library Services Act (MLSA) on September 30, 1996, which includes the Library Services and Technology Act and the Museum Services Act. This act was reauthorized in 2003 and again in 2010. The law combined the Institute of Museum Services, which had been in existence since 1976, and the Library Programs Office, which had been part of the Department of Education since 1956. Lawmakers at that time saw "great potential in an Institute that is focused on the combined roles that libraries and museums play in our community life.")
George Seybolt (From my 1976 interview with him.) “A new budget for IMS starts on October 1 (1977) with $3 million. Both House and Senate have recommended it. But they have differences so they need to meet and come to a compromise. The total authorized for the first year was $15 million. When Congress creates a piece of legislation, particularly expenditure legislation, they put a ceiling on the authorization. They authorize it for three years and put a ceiling on it. The ceiling for 1976, which starts on October 1, is $15 million.
“This bill was created a year ago and went through both Houses and President Ford signed it. He made no recommendation for funding. He was less than enthusiastic. Our best friends were Democrats in Congress; Pell, Javits and Brademas. It went through with the highest vote for any arts legislation that has been passed.
“When Mr. Califano came in and had to go to the Office of Management and Budget (run by Bert Lance, a Georgia businessman, who resigned in his first year because of a scandal from which he was later cleared) he and the White House group said OK and authorized $3 Million. It was the White House saying we just want to spend $3 million on this and see how it goes…
"Museums have objects in storage that they don’t use. But they are good enough for long term educational loans to small museums. They are not the finest or greatest pieces. A problem with major exhibitions today is the cost of publishing catalogues. Printing three to five thousand copies in color is a money losing proposition. Sales and getting it into circulation do not match the cost of printing. Installing and designing exhibitions has become a field for professionals. That and curatorial resources entail a lot of money. If, however, one developed efficient traveling exhibitions printing say 50,000 copies of a catalogue it could be cost effective and sell for less money. You could then better absorb research, writing and production of a catalogue as well as other costs. You could tour that exhibition with installation diagrams and swatches for wall colors.
“That kind of show could tour for a couple of years and be seen in twenty or so venues. The host museum would pay a share of admission to the lending institution…
"Four years ago, I put together a proposal to approach major foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and The National Endowments. I wanted them to put up $100 million to establish a fund that would earn some five to six million a year. It would be best to gear this to museums as the cost for funding the performing arts is far greater, the per diem costs of supporting a company for example. When moving a museum’s objects, you don’t have that problem as there is no maintenance (of personnel). I tried to create a pool of money which could be drawn upon to start this thing.
“Major museums have a lot in their basements where smaller museums have little or nothing in reserve. Drawing on storage resources would be a boon to the entire field of museums in America. That’s an example of what could be done for education and exhibitions on the part of the federal government.”
MC The NEA began to indemnify international exhibitions in 1975 and the indemnification of domestic exhibitions (objects being lent to US museums from other US museums) is more recent, it wasn’t established until 2007 . Whether Seybolt was the person who pushed for that early legislation I don’t know. It has grown into one of the most important programs administered by the Endowment.
CG How has that survived during the Trump years?
MC The U.S. is almost unique compared to other developed countries given the modest way in which it supports the arts. There are few countries in the world that allocate as little to the arts as we do. That hasn’t changed under Trump, in fact his administration has tried to cut what little funding for the arts that exists. The insurance i.e. the indemnity, program, however, is an important one and hasn’t been touched. As I’ve said, the program has expanded from an international focus (where it began) to the support of domestic exhibition exchanges between U.S. museums. It helps enormously in terms of controlling a museum’s costs of exhibitions. The down side is very slight for the government as there are few claims each year. If museums were forced to only rely on purchasing insurance on the open market the costs would be prohibitive and fewer exhibitions could take place.
CG When you toured treasures of The Clark, for example, what would the cost be for commercial insurance?
MC When the Clark sends works from its collections abroad the indemnification is taken on by the foreign entity. We establish values for the works, we approve the recipient’s indemnification plan, but the costs are borne by that institution sometimes working with indemnification schemes of their governments. The cost can be in the very high, six figures at least for a large exhibition of valuable paintings such as the ones the Clark organized from its collections.
CG What happens when you are the host, for example, reciprocating with the treasures of the Prado?
MC It’s quite common to have reciprocal loans arranged if an institution lends to another museum and lately that happens with almost every international show. The Prado exhibition at the Clark stemmed from an agreement we had with them after they exhibited our Renoir collection in Madrid – one of the most popular special exhibitions ever held at the Prado by the way.
Back to the process of indemnification as you asked for clarification: an institution planning an exhibition makes an application to the indemnification program. That organizing institution puts the values of individual works they want covered by the indemnity on the application, values based on those provided by the lending institution.
Those values are reviewed by a committee of museum professionals as well as appraisers, a committee organized by the NEA. If granted, the total sum of an objects to be insured in an exhibition becomes part of the Federal limit established for indemnification each year. There are instances where applications do not meet certain criteria: thematic reasons at times, more often security concerns surrounding the site where it is to be shown. I can’t address what they are in simple terms, but all organizations have to conform to industry standards for humidity control, fire regulation, and security on premises.
CG You borrowed Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece “Lavender Mist” from the National Gallery in 2014. Initially, Alfonso Ossorio agreed to sell the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts for under a million dollars. For conservation concerns the then director of the museum, Merrill Rueppel, rejected the sale. It soon went to the National Gallery for what has been reported as twice the price or some $2 million. That was in the early 1970s. By today’s market standards the painting arguably is worth some $100 million. What would be the insurance premium for that single work?
MC In this case, with the Pollock as part of a larger exhibition traveling from the National Gallery to the Clark, it would have been included on a list of all the works traveling in that show, the cost being a part of an overall application for indemnification. An insurance cost for a specific painting would not be separated unless a museum hasn’t been granted enough indemnity to cover the overall exhibition and are forced to buy some private insurance. The point you are making, however, is that insurance is expensive. Particularly if it’s a hundred-million-dollar picture of which there are many these days. The Pollock is not unique in being worth $100 million.
CG While I know you as a Berkshire neighbor, perusing your resume reveals that you have a global presence. At some point, however, you told me that either you or your wife did not like to travel. For the Clark you appeared constantly to be on the road.
MC There’s a simple answer to this. I did like to travel and I had to travel a lot to be the director of the Clark. My wife may or may not like to travel – depends on a variety of things. There are two points I would mention regarding Clark travel obligations. The first is fundraising. For an organization like The Clark, in this particular location, where significant donors are not necessarily based in your region, traveling was necessary.
In fact the Berkshires is unique in this country in having a number of nationally recognized visual and performing arts organization which are supported substantially and supported in large part by people whose primary residence is not in the Berkshires. That reality forces you to be on the road.
Then there’s the travel obligations that I shared with a number of curators. In order to negotiate for loans to the exhibitions that we wanted to have at the Clark, and in order to participate in a world of museum and research program activity in which we were an equal, travel was necessary.
Communication with potential lenders to exhibitions is a very big component of obtaining loans, to convey personally to colleagues that your exhibition is worth their sacrifice in lending works to our projects. Our curators and guest curators traveled regularly to discuss exhibitions. It was one of the costs of doing business. Being used to zooming as we are now, future travel may not be as necessary. It will be an interesting change, but the need for meetings with colleagues will still have to happen even if those meetings are organized virtually.
CG One of the great benefits of living in the Berkshires has been the great array of exhibitions at The Clark. This is interesting in view of your initial approach to the board for a modest program. What were the exhibitions and projects in which you take the greatest pride? Be that for attendance and audience support or for aesthetic uniqueness.
In particular, I am thinking of the Orchestrating Elegance; Alma Tadema and the Marquand Music Room exhibition in 2017. That likely wouldn’t top most lists and yet it struck me as extraordinary.
MC That was the work of our curators Kathleen M. Morris and Alexis Goodin. That project began in my time, but was realized later. Kathy, the lead curator, worked on it for a long period. She had a commitment to the idea and focused hard to see its realization. The show was inspired by our acquisition of the Alma Tadema piano which I had bought for the museum in the late ‘90s. It was an object which I’d been following for a couple of decades and it finally became available at auction and I bid on it from my house on West Main Street (Williamstown). We got it for a little over a million dollars.
It was a great thing to acquire for the Clark and, as you say, the show that it inspired was an extraordinary curatorial effort. It was not the most popular show we ever did, but it was important and extraordinary experience for those who visited. The idea grew out of our collection allowing us to look at this odd but wonderful piece of decorative art and Anglo-American history in a context it never would have had without doing a large exhibition.
CG What was your personal favorite?
MC My favorite show was one of the earliest we organized, because I love the artist, the time in which he worked, and curatorial insight of the catalogue essay and choice of works. It’s The Young Sargent show we organized in 1997. It was hard to do. We fought with the Tate to get the loans. They didn’t want to loan to a museum in Williamstown that had never asked for loans before in spite of the many we had provided to the Tate over the years. We reminded them of that, but we had to do it a bit aggressively. That changed their perspective. And Mark Simpson brought a great deal of intelligence and sensitivity to the analysis of this early period of the artist’s career.
CG You organized exhibitions with staff curators but as the programming expanded and became more ambitious how did the reflect in curatorial outreach?
MC What was unique to the Clark’s exhibition projects during those years was the fact that we encouraged experts in the field who were not our staff curator, to be the organizing curators for many of our exhibitions. Our staff did the difficult work of working with these outside experts, to link them with our organization. I think of the French nineteenth century paintings expert Rick Brettell who organized Painting Quickly in France 1860-1890 in 2001 and Pissarro People in 2011. We supported Richard Kendall as an adjunct curator for a number of years and he organized the great Van Gogh and Nature exhibition in 2015. He also conceived Picasso Looks at Degas in 2010 working with a British expert on Picasso, Elizabeth Cowling .
We looked for experts who had an insight into an artist or period of art that they wanted to present in exhibition form and we supported them. And, most importantly, the Clark had a staff, including Richard Rand and Kathy Morris among others, willing to work with outside curators. This is not typical in museums. It’s hard to do on a regular basis. We organized the amazing show Jean-Francois Millet: Drawn Into the Light, in 1999, curated by Alexandra R. Murphy who worked with Brian Allen, who went on to direct a couple of museums, but was our head of collections and exhibitions at the time. There was at least one major exhibition each year and many other smaller ones. The most popular themes we would hold for the summer schedule.
CG Those summer “blockbusters,” along with Williams College Museum of Art and MASS MoCA, enhanced Northern Berkshire County as a destination for cultural tourism. That in part entailed an image rebranding of the Clark as a major museum. That’s a very different institution than the one you inherited. How did that growth in audience and media attention change you and the institution?
MC In spite of all these exhibition successes (if you could call them successes, I think of them that way at least) I still believe that the lasting accomplishment for the institution programmatically during my tenure was the establishment of the Research and Academic Program.
That secured a profile for the Institute internationally in a way that separates the Clark from most other museums, certainly museums of our scale, utilizing our special resources and links to Williams College in the process. Yes, I should emphasize that its success is linked to the close ties we have with Williams College and its own qualities and resources as a liberal arts institution. Scholars love to come to Williamstown for a conference or to participate in our Visiting Scholars Program. This brings us back to the story of our founding and the transformation of the Institute by Williams associated trustees in the 1960s which I mentioned earlier.
With that program expanding and, more significantly, with the numbers of visitors we began to see during the summertime we begun to have too many people for our physical site. The museum and the Belluschi building were not able to accommodate our summer influx.
CG That leads to you as a bricks and mortar director.
MC That’s the most complicated part of the story of my directorship I guess. I would start by saying that we might have continued in our limited physical state longer were it not for pressure from the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, a not-for-profit organization which the Clark helped birth on its campus with the help of National Endowment for the Arts funding in the 1970s.
They began in premises in our 1965 maintenance building and over the years had expanded their facilities to some degree, but in 1997 they felt the needed to grow further and obtained a $500,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to realize that goal. That forced us as landlords to address the overall issue of campus expansion and create a “master plan” for the campus as a whole. Since we had just completed a small-scale expansion in 1996, we wouldn’t have addressed our future growth that quickly without the pressure from the Conservation Center. Their growth, however, needed to be in sync with what might be in our own future. Thus a “master plan’ was completed in 1999.
CG That was quite a challenge and how did you meet it?
MC I knew at the time that realizing the Clark element of that plan would be no small task. We had a decent endowment and one that was used to pay for the 1995-96 expansion - there was no special fund-raising for that project. We didn’t have the donors to support a large-scale project, however.
In fact when I arrived there was a membership program in place but only two people gave as much as $1,000 a year - and they did that without being asked. That was our entire donor program. We would have to transform the organization from a fund-raising perspective to address any expansion and that couldn’t be done quickly. In the end the process of planning, fund-raising and execution took about fifteen years and required the organization to change significantly as we became more outwardly focused, working to engage potential donors to our cause at the same time.
CG You raised $140 million.
MC Yes, $140 million was raised.
CG I have heard of cost overruns and ongoing debt.
MC Technically there were no real “over-runs”, but the project cost more than we were able to raise (sorry for that subtle difference). Yes, we took on debt at the time. That debt is unfortunate. It’s a burden for any organization to have to operate with debt service, but our justification was based on the scale of our endowment (about $350 million at the time) and the need the Board and staff felt to complete the work as we had envisioned it. We needed the added infrastructure to operate. Also, in our project the integrated nature of the architecture, renovation to the Museum and Manton buildings and the transformation of our 140 acre landscape kept us from “phasing” as some master plans allow. I don’t regret the decision we made not to cut corners, but, as you say, servicing debt is not ideal for any organization no matter how large their endowment.
CG That’s all too common for expansion projects. Malcolm Rogers is praised for the expansion of Lord Norman Foster’s design for the American Wing. He passed along some $50 million in debt to the administration of Matthew Teitelbaum. I asked him about that recently and the museum is getting back to me with precise figures. In addition to debt, museums are also brunting the impact of the pandemic during the past year.
MC Whether it’s common or not I can’t say. There are some people, and I may be one of them, who feel that, if you are in the middle of construction and are unable to raise as much money as the project requires, you still want to get thing done right for future generations. I think I would make that claim for our expansion at the Clark, though there are some who might not agree with that perspective. When I go there as a visitor now, however, I’m so impressed with how it looks and how well the current administration maintains it. They’ve done an amazing job of keeping the buildings, their interiors and the landscape well-maintained, something that’s not easy for a complex building.
And as we were speaking of landscape, an important thing to remember is that our project was as much about landscape enhancement as it was about adding to and renovating facilities. If you remember the old Clark site created when two houses which were torn down, two huge buildings (the Museum and Manton) were built on that site with a parking lot in the back centered by a bunker-like maintenance building. Mr. Clark had bought the hundred plus acres behind the original site because he didn’t want any houses built above the museum. With this project we ended up making those acres of Stone Hill with their extraordinary views to the north and east part of the campus experience. One of the most important aspects of the project, too, is that it creates the foundation for future physical growth, when that needs to happen, in the area around the Lunder Center at Stone Hill. The 140 acre landscape is a now part of the new Clark campus experience for visitors. You see both local hikers and others enjoying that on a daily basis all seasons of the year.
CG You had a lot of give and take with the architect Tadao Ando. He is known for sculptural structures and use of concrete. You prevailed on him to create veneers and soften the sense of brutalist concrete. Your suggestion was to use the same red granite that is a sheathing material for the Manton Center for a softer, warmer look. That creates a visual connection between the bookends of the museum complex. Anecdotally, it was a complex dialogue to accomplish that modification.
MC Let me say two things. I wouldn’t question your comment, but want to put my own gloss on it. One, the use of granite was to unify the campus more than to give it a softer look although that might be a further positive result. We were burdened with two very different buildings as a given, the white marble neo-classical Museum building of 1955 and the red granite, brutalist building that opened in 1973, now called the Manton Research Center. One of the goals of the project was to create a third building which would not be a further discordance, in fact we hoped that any addition to the campus could potentially link all of them together visually.
Ando agreed with this goal and in the end, he also agreed that using the same Dakota granite on the Manton building could be one of the unifying elements. You see how well that works particularly when looking at the buildings from the terraces. Secondly, in terms of any disageement, I actually write about this in an essay to be published by a new museum called Wrightwood 659 which Ando designed in Chicago.
CG Architects on the level of Ando come with their unique style and vision. As a museum you are a client with unusual but specific needs. Once the program is developed what are the challenges in collaborating on the actual design and structure?
MC I discuss the engagement I had with Ando. As you say, he has a sculptural vision which he applies to all the projects he designs. One hires him for that sculptural vision. Conflict, if there is the right term for work one does adjusting design vision and functional needs, comes from needing to make the building work. There might be compromises in the architect’s original sculptural vision in order to make the museum function well. But that’s the process all good architecture goes through and it’s a necessary “complex dialogue” as you call it, not really a conflict between architect and client.
(Wrightwood 659 is an exhibition space conceived for the presentation of exhibitions of architecture and of socially engaged art. It is designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, who has transformed a 1920s building with his signature concrete forms and poetic treatment of natural light. In a city rich with art institutions and internationally known for its architecture, Wrightwood 659 is designed as a site for contemplative experiences of art and architecture, and as a place to engage with the pressing social issues of our time. Located at 659 W. Wrightwood Avenue, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, it is a private, non-commercial initiative envisioned as an integral part of the cultural and civic fabric of Chicago, as well as a new kind of arts space and cultural resource.)
CG In what manner was the Clark commission different from Ando’s other work?
MC Our project was particularly difficult because there were a lot of different structures and different things to be addressed. We were tearing down a maintenance building with all the functioning systems for the campus as a whole (boilers, electrical systems, etc) and it was also the home of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. We had to build a new structure for the Conservation Center first, and that’s the Lunder Center on Stone Hill.
We then had to add a largely underground structure, part of the new Clark Center to both house our boilers and electrical systems and other back of house functions, including our loading dock, and tie them to the publicly accessible special exhibition space and visitor center. We then had to renovate and seamlessly link the existing buildings, the neo-classical Museum and “brutalist” Manton building to that infrastructure tying it all together visually with a new campus landscape design, one centered by a reflecting pool that Ando conceived to visually bridge all the structures and extend the terrace experience through new pathways into the 140 acres beyond. There have been some architectural critics who have failed to understand this complexity (and that’s easy to miss) but the importance of the landscape transformation that was an essential part of the ambition of the project as a whole.
For me the success of the Clark project is manifested in the fact that you can walk into the Clark Center and onto the terrace and take in the hills beyond the water feature in front of you and have no sense of how challenging its realization was. It’s now a calming site and when you’re on the terrace it looks as if it was always been there, always imagined as a part of the Clark experience. This was anything but easy to do. It also functions very well. From the gallery experience to shopping from indoor to outdoor.
The only thing in my view that we had to compromise on was ideal food service. There’s lots of reasons for this too complicated to explain here. We realized this at the time, however, and there is a plan for a restaurant and event space which Ando designed that would be entered from the book store in the Clark center overlooking Schow Pond to the northeast. All the infrastructure is there to build that space (foundation support and elevator access to our kitchen for example) and I hope it is addressed at some point in the future.
CG When the project was being developed with Ando it was reported that you were traveling regularly to Japan once a month for six months.
MC At the very beginning.
CG You were coming to him with a large and complex program. In that sense you were a challenging client with so many specific needs.
MC You may be right. We needed to have the Institute function well for staff and visitors alike and the existing conditions made it challenging to design. We had a complicated program given our two existing buildings along with the maintenance facility. In most of Ando’s projects, he gives a client his vision for a singular new structure and one that can function relatively easily because it’s new.
Our project, because of the conditions and context which I’ve outlined, had lots of issues that required, shall we say, “vision compromise”, especially in the early stages of design. Those compromises were further complicated later by the shrinking of our ambitions as we got initial estimates in. These alterations were well before construction began, however. There was a regular tightening of the program as design continued and the project improved accordingly. That’s not uncommon in any architectural project but it had to be done. Ando, however, is a bit impatient with the nuance of programmatic tightening. I discuss this characteristic of Ando’s ideal working process in my essay for Wrightwood 659.
CG With construction and expansion of major museums there seems to be a pattern. When employing renowned architects there is a dichotomy of the ego of their design and the pragmatics of a museum’s functions. It is a struggle of dominance of impact of the container and what is contained. An example of that is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The schematic of the great spiral space generally overwhelms an installation of objects. The ramp limits our ability to walk back from works particularly ones with large scale. Similarly, the Bilbao Museum of Frank Gehry is spectacular from the exterior but with problematic flow of its galleries. It seems to work best with large scale sculpture such as those by Richard Serra. That’s what we saw during our visit to the museum.
MC There’s no doubt that the common issue in museum design is the relationship between the art being exhibited and the building design to show it. This plays out aggressively in the famous example of the Guggenheim Museum that you cite. But it’s a common conflict is all museum architectural projects. Museums hold special challenges for architects and their clients as there is both a need to create an engaging physical space, worthy of the secular temples that museums have always been, and at the same time design a space that doesn’t overwhelm the art being displayed.
It is a balance. There are some institutions that some might consider move too strongly to one side of that balance vs. the other. You cite the Guggenheim as one of those and I might as well. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the Guggenheim is a great museum space despite the curatorial challenges that you mention. That’s how people feel about Bilbao as well. There’s no consistent view on the success of either building although I suspect that members of the non-specialist, cultural tourist public are not critical of the art and exhibition viewing challenges in each that you mention.
CG In my opinion Ando’s Clark is a successful compromise. It impacts dramatically and is also functional as a space. The view from the terrace of water and landscape is unique among American museums. The design takes full advantage of a bucolic setting.
MC We shouldn’t be looking at it in the context of examples we have been discussing like the Guggenheim or Bilbao. We had existing structures that were difficult to work with. We added to those structures as we tried to unify them through both a new structure and landscape design. All very different from designing a new facility like the New York Guggenheim or Bilbao. As I’ve said, it’s a project as much about landscape as it is about building. I would remind you, too, that the renovation of the 1955 Museum building as well as the Manton Research Center were actually designed and executed by a different architect, Annabelle Selldorf. We chose her because we felt she could enhance those spaces more appropriately that Ando would have.
The Clark now is a subtly articulated institution in a quasi-rural landscape. It’s a restful experience on the exterior, one enhanced by its terraces and landscape views. I’ve called it an anti-Bilbao. It’s something you have to experience by walking through it. It hasn’t the sculpture-like photo appeal of a Bilbao.
I would add as we close that one of our challenges was how to accommodate a large-scale, special exhibition space of about 10,000 sq. ft. (which the industry sees as the scale for large traveling exhibitions), how to create such a space on a residential street in a small town as part of a museum that’s noted for intimacy of experience. You could have built a large bubble above grade which I didn’t want to do, so we made a decision to make it light filled and below grade space. I’m not unhappy that we made that decision, but it was a compromise because walking down to a special exhibition space is less exhilarating than the alternative. We ultimately chose to favor maintaining the landscape outside over the visitors’ experience of entering that special exhibition space below grade.
CG What terms are you on with Ando at this point?
MC Good actually. We’ve been in touch and, as I’ve said, I’m writing about him. It’s a very long essay titled “Tadao Ando’s Public Projects in the United States.” It was finished 18 months ago but they seem to be taking a long time publishing it. The focus is on the practical challenges around the building of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Clark, and the new Wrightwood 659 museum in Chicago, which he finished in October, 2018. We’ve been in touch regularly over those essays, but I haven’t seen Mr. Ando for a couple of years.
CG What is becoming of the property which The Clark has leased on the MASS MoCA campus? (The building to the left in the parking lot facing the entrance approach to the museum.)
MC About six months ago MASS MoCA took that over. The Clark and MASS MoCA abandoned the lease agreement and building 12 is now entirely MASS MoCA’s. The Clark no longer retains a long-term lease of that property.
CG You’ve been most generous and I thank you for your time.
MC It’s been fun.