Williamstown an unexpected art haven

Williamstown, Massachusetts: Land of wheat fields, chickens, and investment-bankers-to-be. On a visit to answer the question, “Could we go to grad school in the middle of nowhere for two years?” my friend Alec and I found a strange world of extreme athleticism, extensive farmland, and extraordinary art that left us feeling…confused. Williams College is completely isolated from any obvious form of civilization, and yet it has developed into a microcosm of cultured urbanity unto itself. Within five minutes of one another (driving, of course) there are two exceptional museums with wide-ranging collections, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. (To say nothing of Mass MoCA, just six miles away).

Driving into Williamstown I expected to see, well, a town. Maybe I imagined something like Raymond Avenue and then a small, liberal arts campus. Instead, we drove through rural fields and wooded glades and then emerged on to the center of the campus.

The most surprising aspect of the college was the size of the campus– nothing was really within walking distance—and yet the Williams student population is about 500 students fewer than Vassar. This anomaly left us befuddled, but we decided to soldier on to the museums, the ultimate purpose of our visit.

The Art History Department and the galleries are housed in the same building at the Williams Museum. This fluidity between classroom and object instills a sense of ownership in the students that is both admirable and bizarre. While on the one hand most of the exhibits (if not all) were student curated, on the other in nearly every gallery we found students lounging around on the floor and benches, some sketching, but most napping or playing games on their iPhones.

It was awkward and unnerving to step over a heap of coats (turns out there was a human under those) to look closer at a Church painting of Niagara Falls. But I guess they are calling into question the sacred nature of art, and bringing it back down to a human level?

But focusing on the positives, I really enjoyed the exhibit  “Painting Between the Lines”, in which fourteen contemporary artists were commissioned to create original works from the descriptions of fictional paintings in historical and contemporary literature. Choices included Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Samuel Beckett. The exhibit design was clean and playful, using colorful lines to outline the relevant passages from the books and resulting artworks. Although the space was sparse, it felt full and the focus was appropriately put on the works themselves.

Just across town (seriously, five minutes), The Clark is known for an exceptional collection of European and American works, especially of the 19th century. Unfortunately, their primary building is currently under extensive renovation and much of their collection is on tour. But a selection of their permanent collection and a series of temporary exhibits currently inhabit the Manton Research Center, providing more than enough to see during an afternoon.

However, the research center really isn’t conducive to art exhibits, and much of the hanging and design was questionable. Alec was particularly bothered by two red chalk drawings that were hung on a red wall with matching red gallery labels. This both drowned out the artwork and made it very difficult to read the provided information. In the exhibit “Electric Paris” a truly electric blue covered the rooms, a color that certainly captured the spirit of the theme but should have been used sparingly on accent walls rather than across the board.

I took issue with the “salon style” exhibit, which used the 19th century French way of hanging paintings en masse, stacked on top of each other. The chosen room had unfortunately low ceilings that did not effectively accommodate this particular method, which succeeds best in spaces with lofty ceilings. Rather than feeling joyfully overwhelmed, it felt crushing and claustrophobic. Of course, this feeling was only enhanced by the stifling heat and humidity that made me picture the paint melting from the canvases.

Fortunately, the new building will be open in 2014. A small gallery explains this process with diagrams and video, and from the projected images it seems as though all of the problems I just mentioned will be solved. The walls will be a neutral tone and there will be more light and height to the galleries, with plenty of space for each object to breathe.

Now, beyond the incredible artwork in these museums collections, the most positive aspect is how much both Williams and the Clark work with students and the public to curate exhibits. The Clark has a program called “Clark Remix” in which visitors use “uCurate”, essentially a fancy computer program, where you can design your own exhibit using the current objects of the collection on display—including decorative arts. The curatorial team considers submitted designs and the lucky winners have their creations installed as exhibits.

Involving students at a curatorial level is a practice that I have long desired to experience at the Loeb. I am aware that every few semesters a senior seminar will involve researching and curating an exhibit, but I think that the opportunities for student participation must become exponentially greater. At both Williamstown museums there were a myriad of opportunities for students to work as a class, a small group, or as individuals to pull objects from the collection and arrange them in shows large and small. And while the final product was not always awe-inspiring—or even comprehensible—it is the experiential learning that is valuable and commendable.

So what was the result of Alec’s and my little voyage? Well, the Graduate Program in the History of Art may be extraordinary, the collections of both museums may be breathtaking, and the opportunities for student involvement may be inspiring, but the isolated location is simply untenable. Returning to Vassar was a breath of fresh air, and I will never ever again complain about the “bubble”.

Luckily, Williamstown is just close enough for a pleasant afternoon jaunt, and you can make it there and back again just in time for supper.

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