It is difficult to remain vital in a changing world, especially one that does not necessarily mesh with the Old World charm of the Clark Art Institute. With Michael Conforti at the helm, however, the museum should not have any problems charging into the 21st century. The man behind the rapid expansion, escalating attendance records and recent major painting acquisitions has much to say on where the Clark is today and where it will go in the future.
Before settling in the Berkshires, Conforti majored in art history at Trinity College and then worked at Sotheby’s in London and New York, where he ran a training program, at that time in its infancy but still in existence today. After three years at Sotheby’s, he went to Harvard and upon completing his Ph.D, received a three year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Back in the States, he became a curator at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco and then spent fourteen years as the chief curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He joined the Clark in 1994.
When asked about the state of the Clark today, Conforti highlighted its growing position as a major cultural force, one not limited to the Berkshires. “I think the challenge of the Clark has been to take a much loved institution and to expand its programs,” explained Conforti, “both on the research and academic side, as well as the public side. I think we have been successful in doing that. We are now growing the research and academic program, which is taking the form of conferences in the field of art history, as well as a visiting scholars program which brings people here from all over the world to work on their own research. By the year 2000, we’ll have 15 people here a year, six people in residence at any one time.”
The upcoming conference, “The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University,” on April 9-10 is part of that growth. This symposium will explore the tense relationship between the two branches of art history. “It’s already received a lot of attention in the underground circuit within the museum field,” said Conforti. “Students are invited, although there are people coming from all over the country. It is certainly one of the biggest conferences we’ve ever had with about fifteen speakers from the museum and university fields, from England, Germany and France. In a sense it’s the beginning of the very large-scale conferences that we imagine.”
The Clark has been vigorously expanding its collections and is about to exhibit the results of its initial foray into 19th century photography with “Early Photography/ 8 Months Out, Recent Acquisitions at the Clark Art Institute.” “This inaugurates a program of collecting photographs at the Clark – something we never did. We’re the most significant buyers in the field of early, pre-1915 or so, photographs. People in the 1920s and 1930s, when Sterling Clark was collecting, would have never bought photographs; they weren’t considered art at the time by people of that type. But we’re trying to buy photographs in the late 19th century field that will relate to our paintings, prints and drawings collection. We’ve been able to buy from private French collections and from the inventory of dealers, so that the show is really quite extraordinary,” remarked Conforti.
The permanent collection continues to grow in other areas as well, although not in the area of French Impressionism, for which the Clark is nationally renowned. Explained Conforti, “We’re not against buying Impressionists, but it’s not really viable. We are really looking for a few great masterpieces and even our photography is going that route. We have recently bought a Quentin Massys, a Flemish artist, and we will be announcing the acquisition of another painting of great importance in April.”
“It is always a question as to whether we should change our collecting focus,” said Conforti. “But since we’re a private collection gone public we have so many activities outside of our narrow area of collecting that we don’t see the fiscal merit of changing. We’re focused on masterpieces and it just seems like a waste of money to be spreading out too thinly.”
Though it pursues older works, the Clark is concerned with being current. It achieves this with temporary exhibitions. “While we are focused on earlier themes, we are still very much involved with current interpretations of objects. We are doing a show of American paintings of the 19th century with Near Eastern themes, so-called ‘American Orientalism,’ for the summer of 2000. Holly Edwards, the curator, is bringing together a group of Islamic scholars to look critically at the ways in which Americans have treated Muslim, Near Eastern, North African imagery. Thus we are looking at America through the eyes of the ‘other.’ The Clark wouldn’t do this in its permanent collection galleries, but in the context of a temporary exhibition you can be much more expansive in the interpretation. So in that sense, we keep up to date,” said Conforti.
Another important way in which the Clark has remained current is in its sponsorship of programs at MassMoCA. “People don’t know that much about our involvement there but we’re certainly ‘the most generous partner’ – in their words – that MassMoCA has. For the last three years we have been sponsoring curatorial internships and exhibitions, everything from David Byrne’s exhibit [Desire] to the exhibition of sound art this past summer. Our commitment to MassMoCA is to sponsor the work of new, younger, somewhat unknown artists. We are the only partner willing to do this. It’s been very important to them in maintaining a creative and vital side of their programming. So that’s really rather an odd combination of things, the Clark, which is known for tradition, is the only one really pushing for them to go out and be experimental. The Clark is very much a focus there and we are thrilled,” explained Conforti.
Conforti claimed not to have given the idea of his legacy at the Clark much thought, though he did say, “We are increasing our impact both nationally and internationally but we’re doing that while still maintaining a reputation – and we certainly want that to be both reputation and reality – as a special private collection in the middle of the Berkshire valley.” As the force driving the Clark down exciting new avenues, yet aware of its tradition and its loyal supporters, Conforti directs with finesse.