College considers new sites for art museum

The Williams College Museum of Art’s collection is currently located in Lawrence Hall. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

The College has decided not to consider building its new art museum on the lot on the intersection of Southworth Street and Route 2.

The Art Program Building Committee, which is in charge of overseeing the new building, made the decision after neighbors expressed opposition to a new building on the College-owned lot. The proposed museum building, which does not yet have a proposed new location, is still in its early phases.

The College held two community forums on the issue, said Provost Will Dudley, who co-chairs the committee with Dean of the Faculty Denise Buell. At the forums, Williamstown residents who live on or near Southworth St. raised significant concerns about whether the building would fit in the residential neighborhood.

In order to gauge community opinion, community member and former director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives Stephanie Boyd started a petition against the proposed location in November, according to the website iBerkshires. The petition reached 331 signatures out of a goal of 300, with community members expressing frustration at the impact the project would have on Southworth St. For example, one commenter added that it would be a “shame to infringe on the … neighborhood.”

Residents expressed concerns about various issues, including noise, light pollution and increased traffic on a street frequented by a large number of children. The recent construction of Stetson-Sawyer library also affected the Southworth St. neighborhood, a memory that Dudley believes has contributed to opposition.

After considering the community’s reaction, the committee decided not to move forward with site. “We’re looking for a site that serves the department well,” said Dudley, “but we’re also looking for one that sits as well as possible with the town.”

The committee met for the first time 18 months ago in response to concerns from both the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), and the art history and studio art departments that Lawrence Hall, which was built in 1846 and last expanded by Charles Moore in 1986, no longer suits the programmatic needs of WCMA or the departments.

“We don’t just need more space,” said Director of WCMA Christina Olsen, who also sits on the committee. “We need different kinds of space because the museum has changed and the curriculum has changed.”

Since 1986, WCMA’s collection has grown from about 6000 to over 14,000 works of art and now includes larger installations. The art department has also nearly doubled in faculty size. With the growth of interdisciplinary study over the past three decades, the Rose Study Gallery and the Object Lab, WCMA’s two class spaces, are both booked at full capacity.

“The museum is playing a very different role in our community now,” Olsen said. “These are no longer quite the right kind of spaces.”

The College has hired Steven Holl Architects to conduct a program and space utilization study for the building project.

The committee does not have a proposed building design at this time and has not decided how Lawrence Hall will be repurposed. Since rejecting the Southworth St. site, though, the committee is considering three potential locations: the site of the current Williams Inn, a lot on Park St. near the walkway that leads to the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance and the town garage site on Water St., which the College does not currently own.

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