A Talk With: Michael Conforti

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Rendering of the Stone Hill Center at the Clark, Tadao Ando, 2008/Images: THE CLARK

I had lunch recently with Michael Conforti, director of the Clark in Williamstown, Mass., which most people know as the Clark Art Institute. (They’re re-branding.) We talked about the Clark’s ongoing expansion, which includes the almost complete Stone Hill Center, devoted mostly to conservation activities, designed by Tadao Ando. Later this year Conforti also becomes president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, so we also got into some larger questions about museum practices these days. As usual I’ll split this into two parts.

LACAYO: I used to spend weekends not far from the Clark and whenever I took friends there they were always surprised by the quality of your collection, and not just the Impressionists. Who knew there was a Piero della Francesca in the Berkshires?

CONFORTI: It always comes as a shock. There was also always embedded in the Clark that we were more than just an art museum. [As director] I chose to turn the heat up on the research and academic side. There are now conferences there, the Berkshire Conference, as well as the Clark Forum here in New York. We bring in scholars from all over the world to be in Williamstown for anywhere from a month to a year.

LACAYO: How does the Ando addition fit in to what you do?

CONFORTI: The Ando addition comes because there was an expansion of program. Not so much because we attract enormous crowds, though we do bring in a couple of hundred thousand people a year to a town of 8000. But we needed a new conservation center, more space for our conferences, proper temporary exhibition space.

LACAYO: Why did you put the first of the new buildings at a distance from the old Clark? You have to climb a winding path to get to it, though of course that’s typical of Japanese architecture.

CONFORTI: We’re in an extraordinary natural environment, 140 acres, amazing views of the Berkshires. But our public didn’t actually visit our 140 acres. So in the master plan that was done by Cooper-Robertson they began to think about how we could encourage people to move around that site. So they placed this building on a site overlooking a great view of the Berkshires. That’s the building Ando has designed that will open June 22 and be home to the Williamstown Conservation Center.

LACAYO: And then there’s another one to come?

CONFORTI: The second building will begin in 2010. It’s also an Ando project with temporary exhibition space, retail/cafe space and conference rooms. Annabelle Selldorf, the New York architect, is also doing a renovation of our 1955 building. And around that there will be a garden environment that Ando is working on with our landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand. When you come to the Clark in 2013, when it will all be finished, you’ll arrive in a different location. And you’ll go into a different building, an Ando building as you enter. And you’ll have an opportunity to go up the hill to another set of galleries.

LACAYO: Did you do have to do a capital campaign to pay for all this?

CONFORTI We’re in the process of that. We’ve raised over $80 million already in an unannounced capital campaign. We’ll be announcing it in a few months. We announced the first portion of the effort, which was to raise $15 million to build the Stone Hill Center, and we’ve exceeded that. We’re fortunate in that one of the largest gifts ever made to an American museum was made to us last year. Forty million dollars in art and $50 million to support of our research and academic activities from the Manton Foundation.

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Rendering of The Stone Hill Center

At his blog The Modernist, Ed Lifson has a photo tour of Ando’s still not quite complete building, which Lifson trekked to in February.

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