Record attendance for Van Gogh topped year of growth, achievement at Clark

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WILLIAMSTOWN — For the Clark Art Institute, 2015 was a benchmark year full of new challenges, new achievements and several milestones. It was also the year that the Clark celebrated the 60th anniversary of its opening.

Mostly, though, it was the first full year in operation with the new Tadao Ando-designed Clark Center — an expansion project, largely completed in June 2014, that included a 44,400-square-foot visitor and exhibition center.

The Clark's new spaces were used in a variety of ways since the opening to exhibit a diverse set of shows that featured art objects large and small. Walls were moved, then repainted to reconfigure rooms for each show — something the new galleries were designed for.

Jay Clarke, Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark, said she was excited to design exhibitions in the new galleries for the first time.

"I was very pleased to realize how versatile the spaces are," she said. "That's a curator's bread and butter. It enhances our ability to create space sympathetic to the art and to the story you want to convey to the visitor. It's just exciting to have these new possibilities."

The new gallery space was put to the test about a year after completion, with the installation of "Van Gogh and Nature," which drew 170,000 visitors — more people than had ever before come to see a show at the Clark.

"It's been fantastic to have this space because it gave us the opportunity to host exhibitions we never could have done in the old space," said Vicki Saltzman, director of communications at the Clark. "And Van Gogh ended up being the exhibition that attracted the highest attendance in the history of the Clark."

"Van Gogh and Nature" was a one-time exhibition of 50 paintings, selected because they reflect French impressionist Vincent Van Gogh's attraction to nature, that were on loan from 30 museums from around the world.

The show drew more people than officials had anticipated, Saltzman said, sometimes bringing in more than 2,000 people in a single day. That kind of attendance allowed officials to fine-tune the operation to more efficiently handle the crowds and ways to "give people a good experience at the Clark," Saltzman said.

Parking is a good example of changes that had to be made on the fly. For Van Gogh, the 398 parking spaces quickly proved to be inadequate, so they identified a grassy area that could provide parking for another 150 cars. That still wasn't enough, so parking was made available on one side of South Street from the Clark all the way to Field Park. Signs were erected that asked visitors to keep driveways clear and allow for the flow of traffic. And the neighbors were thanked for their patience.

Another lesson learned: The Clark can handle that sort of attendance because of all the expanded space. Visitors are not limited to just one building, Saltzman said.

After viewing Van Gogh, they typically also ventured into the original Museum Building to view the permanent collection, and to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to view the "Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White" exhibit, and outside to the recently completed terrace with a reflecting pool, or for a walk on one of the many trails through the fields and forests that surround the galleries.

"With the new building and the campus layout, we now have the ability to host thousands of people on any given day," she said.

The economic impact of Van Gogh also was significant. According to figures provided by the Clark, Van Gogh fans spent an additional $14.8 million on lodging, meals and incidentals in the Berkshires, above and beyond what would have been spent on an average summer at the Clark. That number does not include what visitors spent at the museum — just what they spent off campus.

The Clark also marked the departure in August of director Michael Conforti, having completed his 20-year quest to grow the Clark — physically and artistically — into an internationally recognized educational institute and center for art exhibition.

"In a sense, I've completed my work here," Conforti, 69, said when announcing his retirement, just a few months after the completion of the final phase of the roughly $145 million campus renovation and expansion. "Now it's time for a younger person to take it to even greater heights, something I'm looking forward to watching from the wings."

With Conforti retiring, a group of trustees, benefactors, staff, and associates made a $6.5 million gift to the Clark to honor his vision and leadership. Reflecting his impact on the institute, the Clark's board of trustees renamed the West Pavilion in the new Clark Center as the Michael Conforti Pavilion. The gift provided capital and operating support for the pavilion and also created an endowment to fund future academic and public programs there.

The trustees subsequently named Francis Oakley as the interim director of the Clark while the search continues for a permanent director. Saltzman said that process will likely conclude in 2016. Oakley, a former president of Williams College, is a longtime member of the Clark's board of trustees and served as board president from 1998–2005.

Other milestones that impacted the Clark in 2015:

• In February, volunteer docent at the Clark, Adele Rodbell, donated much of her extensive collection of Japanese woodcut prints she had been collecting since 1978. The Japanese prints originated during the early 1800s as prints for sale for use in local homes and businesses. But they were soon circulating in Europe, and they wound up inspiring a number of impressionists including Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edvard Munch, and James McNeill Whistler.

• In March, the Clark was the beneficiary of a $15 million gift — one of the largest in its history — from Felda and Dena Hardymon, a couple closely involved with the art museum and education center for more than 20 years. The gift was meant to help with the expansion project and ongoing activities. But in recognition of the Hardymons' generosity, the board of trustees elected to rename the directorship in their honor.

• In April, the Clark collected its winnings from a Super Bowl bet with Kimberly Rorschach, director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum, who put up Albert Bierstadt's dramatic 1870 painting, "Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast." Conforti wagered Winslow Homer's "West Point, Prout's Neck," painted in 1900. The Bierstadt was featured at the Clark for three months.


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