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Jonathon Nix

What have they done to the Clark Art Institute?

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

THE CLARK Art Institute, Williamstown’s jewel box of a museum, has always been a friendly place. If you liked its collection, it was a perfect small museum.

But with the opening of the new visitor center on July 4, museum director Michael Conforti and architect Tadao Ando have spoiled it.

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Previously, you walked right in to visit with the masters. It wasn’t the Met or the Guggenheim Bilbao, it was simply a straightforward presentation of a fine collection, with few distractions. Seeing art was the thing.

This is no longer so. For you who haven’t yet experienced the Clark Center, the new gateway structure through which one must now pass to enter the museum, let me describe the experience:

Parking is now three times farther from the museum, which is hidden by a vast granite wall. At the mid-point of that wall is a niche containing a video screen showing a loop of the talking head of Michael Conforti spliced in with scenes of what, redundantly, you are about to see when you reach the actual museum. After another long slog beside the wall, you reach a point where it terminates at an angled double opening, where you have to choose between a real entrance and a false one (it’s not an obvious choice, which is an annoying Ando signature).

Now you’re in a glassed-in lobby, but there’s no art to be seen. Again you’re faced with a puzzling choice: turn right and you can enter a pleasant gallery space containing a visiting installation of ancient Chinese bronzes. I’m guessing that this isn’t what you came for. If, instead, you choose door number two, opposite the entrance, you win, because you will be treated to the centerpiece of the center, an outdoor reflecting pool with a breathtaking view of a Berkshire hillside.

But then you have to re-enter the lobby and choose door number three before you can see any paintings. This takes you into another lobby, where you must pay $20, during the summer months, to enter the museum proper. What you’ll actually be paying for, by the way, is the experience of passing through the visitor center. Until the late 1990s, before this $147 million project began, the Clark was a prosperous and thrifty institution which allowed the public to view its treasures for free year round.

Still, there are no paintings. There is a gift shop (no surprise there) and a fund-raising desk (again, no surprise).

You can now enter the corridor that will take you to Degas, Renoir, et al, back where they’ve always been, in their original buildings, nicely spiffed up but essentially the same. You have paid homage to Ando and Conforti, so you will be permitted to see the art.

A few words about that art: I have been visiting the Clark for over 30 years; for several of those years I was a creative consultant to the museum, and together we were honored with numerous national and regional design awards, so I know a little of its institutional history. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute has always struck me as being embarrassed about itself — embarrassed, more specifically, about the Clarks and their reactionary taste in art.

The Clarks were able to amass a magnificent collection because at the time they were collecting it was hopelessly unfashionable, and thus relatively cheap. In the postmodern era, people rediscovered the joys of premodernist painting, but by that time the Clark had gained the reputation of being a backwater in the museum world, where terms like “blockbuster” and “superstar” were luring in new audiences. Twenty years ago the institute set out to address that situation, to bring about change.

Which brings me to my point: This inconvenient, wasteful, bombastic architectural statement doesn’t represent any change at all. It’s still the same collection. Major paintings by the same artists are now priced far out of reach, so don’t expect to see much new art, and pictorial painting is fashionable again, so there’s no reason for the more-evident-than-ever inferiority complex.

As I was leaving, I stopped to grumble at the Conforti video. I was joined by a woman sympathetic to my opinion, a fellow painter, who explained the need for the tedious wall, the confusing entryway, the passage through Mammon preceding the admittance to Art: “It’s fascist architecture. For fascism to work, it needs to make people feel stupid.” I certainly felt stupid. But I’m thinking maybe I’m not the only stupid one.

Jonathon Nix is a Massachusetts-based artist and designer.
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