WILLIAMSTOWN - Visitors to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute may not notice the recently completed back-of-house, enabling portion of the museum's 10-year expansion project (due for completion in 2014). That's despite its including a new industrial kitchen and a climate-controlled loading dock big enough for a double-cab tractor trailer. All visitors are likely to see is a fresh layer of grass. "All of this is below grade," said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark, on a recent tour of the new facilities designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando as part of the Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center. "It was felt that the Clark was known for its intimate environment and we didn't want the new Clark to actually have all this new space above grade," he said. "We wanted it to be appropriate for the scale of the Clark as people know and love it and for the scale of the residential neighborhood." The underground facilities include a woodshop, security offices, boiler and air conditioning systems, and a specialized room for shipping works of art. The centerpiece is the much-expanded loading dock, which on one end ascends to the surface and on the other connects to the museum building by a long corridor. In the past, new artworks were accepted through a set of wooden doors directly adjoining the museum building. That arrangement often caused lending institutions some distress, Conforti said, "because there wasn't security and works of art would have to be transported
in outdoor conditions." The former loading dock area will become a gallery space. The new, more user-friendly loading dock, which is already accepting works of art, "is central to the kinds of programs that we're going to be able to do in the future, that we haven't been able to do in the past," Conforti said. Near the loading dock is a dedicated space for TSA-approved shipping, a procedure introduced after Sept. 11, 2011 that allows approved parcels to travel through airports without being opened. With a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) official onsite, Conforti said, crates can be specially sealed and stamped, and then "go directly to the other organization, institution, individual. And that's something that is very important for us who are involved in art museums, who don't want expensive paintings to be opened in the middle of an airport." Besides the back-of-house operations, an additional 8,000 square feet of special below-grade exhibition space (not yet completed) will allow the Clark "to do the larger-scale shows that our public would want to see and that we actually could do because of the nature of our collection (i.e. we lend such great things that people are willing to lend such great things back). This facility will allow us to do those larger scale shows, will translate into a better program that will translate into more appeal for the public," Conforti said. Existing above-ground galleries, which have been redesigned by Selldorf Architects in New York City, are currently under renovation. (It was interesting to see such familiar spaces, where now instead of Rembrandts and Sargents on the walls, there was only blue tape, marking "X"s where walls were to be removed.) As part of the renovations, a more extensive lighting system will be concealed under recesses in the ceilings, some galleries will be enlarged, and ceiling beams throughout the galleries will be removed. "So a lot of subtle things, but not things that will necessarily make people feel that they're not in the old Clark," Conforti said. While Selldorf's renovations are more in line with the Clark's original style, Ando's design for the Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center (above and below ground) brings a Japanese aesthetic sensibility to the project. "And that was something that we purposefully wanted to have as part of the project" said Conforti, "because Japanese architects are particularly good at working with simple classical forms and nature. They're also good at working - because of the tight urban environments [in Japan] - at bringing light to areas below grade." That was of special importance when considering the new underground exhibition space. Through Ando's collaboration with Reed Hilderbrand Associates of Watertown, Mass, the new campus will help connect visitors to the museum's natural surroundings by integrating architectural and landscape designs. Outdoor walkways and footpaths, a 1.5 acre reflecting pool and a strategically placed entrance pavilion will draw visitors' attention to the outdoors and invite them to explore. In many ways, the new center will be in and of the landscape. "It clearly is a building that is not about just a building, but about the experience of a whole campus," Conforti said. These are only a sample of the many improvements visitors can expect to see at the Clark when the expansion project is completed in 2014. For more information, visit www.clark.edu.