Reopened research center impresses

The new Manton Research Center at the Clark brings art and art history together through its collections. Photo courtesy of The Clark.
The new Manton Research Center at the Clark brings art and art history together through its collections. Photo courtesy of The Clark.

Reopened Saturday, the newly renovated Manton Research Center at the Clark Art Institute sits somewhere between the old and new, between art and art history. Renovated by Selldorf Architects and home to the Clark’s Research and Academic Program, a 270,000-volume art research library and classrooms and offices for the Clark/Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art, the renovation of the Manton Research Center completes the Clark’s 15-year, $170 million campus expansion, which included the opening of Tadao Ando’s Clark Center and three-tiered reflecting pool in 2014. 

The Manton Research Center, originally opened in 1973, was designed by Pietro Belluschi and is faced with red granite. From the front entrance, the building, essentially two large squares connected by a sunken lower middle section, may seem a little intimidating — a fortress of knowledge. Closer examination reveals a simple, carefully considered structure with a rhythmic order to the red granite panels and rectangular glass windows that punctuate the building. In fact, Ando pays homage to Belluschi’s steady order with his own freestanding red granite walls that frame the Clark Center.

Entering the main lobby and reading room of the Manton Research Center, the effect is stunning. Natural light permeates the room, perfectly tempered by Selldorf’s half-coffered roof — a grid of open skylights with mini, sail-like elements that give the reading room a silver glow. A long reading table with lamps frames one end of the reading room, with wooden, semi-private booths and low armchairs scattered throughout; the space is warm and inviting, and feels comfortable to work in.

The reading room houses photographer and critic Allan Sekula’s personal library, which is wonderfully organized into two balcony shelves. Spines of various heights and subjects seem to pay homage to Sekula’s eclectic work and practice. Sekula embodied the artist as a writer, reader and thinker — the installation represents the mission of the Manton Research and the Clark Art Institute as a whole, which is, according to Director Olivier Meslay, to preserve past culture while supporting forward-thinking research.

At first, the books seem inaccessible; however, there are two gates along the bronze fences that allow interested patrons access. Furthermore, the stacks on view are only about two-thirds of Sekula’s library. Librarian Susan Roeper worked with staff to sort through Sekula’s library to pick the 5000 volumes they thought would be most relevant to and requested by visiting scholars, and entered those into the Manton’s special collection.

Selldorf’s work on the interior of the Manton Research Center is seamless and non-intrusive; the space feels lived-in with lots of wood surfaces, peppered with burnished bronze detailing in the railings and the doors’ push plates. Selldorf is known for her serene, balanced spaces, having renovated the galleries of the Clark and the interior of the Neue Galerie in New York. She also designed spaces for commercial galleries David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth. Selldorf Architects, led by Annabelle Selldorf, excels in revitalizing seemingly stagnant buildings and making them feel more open. The new Manton Gallery for British Art, the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper and the Manton Study Center for Works on Paper were all designed by Selldorf, and are also housed in the Manton Research Center. These new spaces are poised to make the Clark more public-facing as it moves forward with new exhibitions and programming.

According to Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Jay A. Clarke, the Clark boasts a collection of 7000 works of art on paper, including the work of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and a great deal of 19th century French and American art and photography. Despite this, these works have never beem easily accessible for viewing or study. Clarke emphasized that the new Manton Study Center will be open to everyone, from grammar school students to scholars, so that they may closely study select works of interest.

Among the 20 or so other works Clark had on view in the Study Center were a Winslow Homer watercolor with stunningly deep blues and purples and an ominous, smoky Degas monotype print, which was recently in The Museum of Modern Art. The opening of the Study Center will be a boon to visitors, as the works on paper collection is unique for its depth. Furthermore, the adjacent Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper allows for easy rotation and exhibition of works. The Thaw Gallery itself has beautifully tall, curved walls that allow for natural circulation through the space.

The Clark has a unique dual mission as an art museum and a research and academic center, and the Research and Academic Program (RAP) is reputed as a forum for advanced investigations into not just art, but also the ideas surrounding the visual and aesthetic aspects of all humanities. Numerous publications and exhibitions have been supported by RAP, and it is almost symbolically ideal for the Manton Research Center to be joined to the museum galleries by a bridge.

There is a constant flow between gallery, study center and library, with the completion of the renovation of the Manton Research Center allowing for art and art history to come together and for the disciplines to be accessible and shared with the wider community.