The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts has never been bombed, which means it has fulfilled its founding purpose. In the 1950s, as the threat of nuclear war loomed over New York City, private art collectors Sterling and Francine Clark decided their art was no longer safe in Manhattan and began looking at other possible venues for their art. Williamstown, because of its isolated location and its high cow-to-person ratio, was at a low risk for any attacks. Sterling’s father and grandfather had been trustees at Williams College, so Sterling and Francine packed up their collection and founded a museum just off campus: The Clark Art Institute. In doing so, they joined Herman Melville, Edith Wharton and my grandparents in the set of people who relocated north to the westernmost part of Massachusetts to hide out from the wars and storms of the outside world.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, artists and writers left New York for the Berkshires, a rural region in the mountains of Western Massachusetts. The countryside provided anonymity and the space to reclaim their art and lives. Edith Wharton wrote that her home in the Berkshires, The Mount, gave her “the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing.” As more and more artists brought their work to the Berkshires, other artists still in the city followed suit, and eventually a glimmering scene of world-renowned theatre, dance and visual art emerged.
Today, the Clark is one of many acclaimed cultural institutions in the Berkshire arts scene. The Williamstown Theatre Festival routinely hosts renowned actors such as Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman, Tanglewood Music Center is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has New York City Ballet legends on its board and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, called Mass MoCA for short, was recently visited by Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator.
Seventy years after the Clark’s founding, I know its permanent collection by heart. Fifteen years of visits have brought me into a close friendship with Renoir’s “Girl with a Fan,” and the mountains behind Winslow Homer’s “Two Guides” might as well be my backyard. The back-to-back field trips to the museum during my elementary school days tried to instill an intricate knowledge of each painting’s history, but time has now washed away my memory of each artist’s biography, and I am left with a shadowy impression of the feelings associated with each piece in the lilac-walled galleries. Frederic Remington’s horses in “Dismounted” bear a stressful chaos and his “Friends or Foes” a weary solitude, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Women of Amphissa” confers a mystical voyeuristic drunkenness and the obscured haze of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral” carries the childlike awe of optical illusions; the docents’ favorite trick was to show kids how the church’s form only became identifiable the farther you walked from it.
The Degas has always been my favorite. As an aspiring ballerina at age four, I’d follow my mom as she pointed to the dancers’ blue tutus and explained to me that I could one day wear their pointe shoes. When I turned 14, she snapped a picture of me in the iconic fourth position in front of the gauzy tutu of “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” Now that I’ve let go of dreams of pursuing professional ballet, “Entrance of the Masked Dancers” pulls at the part of me that wants, more than anything, to be spinning out of the wings in front of a packed theatre again.
If the story of the Berkshires is about glimmering art, it’s equally about poverty in the wake of deindustrialization. Pittsfield, the county’s biggest town at 40,000 residents, used to be home to General Electric, and similarly, North Adams housed Sprague Electric in the old mill that’s now Mass MoCA. Both companies’ departures in the 1990s left workers in the Berkshires jobless and drove local businesses that relied on those workers’ spending out of town, leaving a grim landscape. I’ve grown up hearing stories from my mom about the addiction and teen pregnancy that she mitigates as a pediatrician in North Adams. In 2014, the North Adams hospital went under, putting thousands more out of work. Again and again, city planners and advocates use the arts scene to try to revitalize the cities with post-industrial chic galleries and new refined uses for textile mills. They do succeed at creating jobs and sprucing up the downtowns, but the value of art has never been in its ability to solve socioeconomic disparities. Shootings still happen outside of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, where James Taylor’s children perform in “A Christmas Story,” and residents go hungry up the street from Mass MoCA, which had its documentary narrated by Meryl Streep.
The Clark, perhaps as Francine and Sterling had predicted when they placed their museum next to Williams, has managed to avoid this dilemma. Williamstown now has more people than cows. but maintains its image as a haven in which artists and academics — and still my grandparents — thrive. While affordable housing efforts are succeeding in shifting the town’s socioeconomic demographics, Williamstown has remained a bastion of economic comfort and academic prowess compared to the rest of Northern Berkshire County, largely due to Williams College’s presence in the town. In Williamstown, questions about the role of expensive and famous art in coexistence with poverty are less relevant.
Like most children of Williamstown, I’ve grown up among the Berkshires’ cultural institutions and its natural beauty; The Clark offers both. Due to its placement on 140 acres of picturesque land, it serves as a sort of town square. In the front, near the parking lot, is a small pond that freezes in the winter, where my dad ice skated during his youth and where I would have learned to skate myself had my mom not been so anxious about me falling through the ice. Behind the museum near the patio, shallow pools of water called reflecting pools mirror the hill and mountains, pulling the nature of the surrounding landscape into close contact with the oil-painted landscapes inside. In the winter, from the top of the hill, Williamstown looks like it was ripped from a snow globe. In true New England Puritan style, the white steeple of the church peaks above the trees in the center of the town, and you can trace Main Street to the college’s castle-like chapel. When the trees are bare of leaves, you can see the elementary school, and behind it, if you really squint, a glimpse of my house. At the top of this hill, I’ve run (when I convinced myself I enjoyed running) and I’ve walked (when I’ve been more honest), I’ve danced and I’ve picnicked, I’ve cried and I’ve kissed.
Bordering this pasture, the museum maintains a network of hiking paths. A few minutes onto the Stone Bench Trail, maples and oaks shroud any view of the museum or the town, and if you keep walking beyond the Stone Bench, where my uncle proposed to my aunt, you step onto the spider web of hiking trails that connects the collegiate atmosphere of downtown to the dirt roads and farms of South Williamstown. From that very spot, you couldn’t quite walk to Maine or to Georgia — the Appalachian Trail runs through the other side of town — but with some detours on dirt roads, you could walk from my house to my grandparents’ house, from the forests where my grandfather catalogues plants to the courses where my parents and sister run half marathons. On summer evenings, the peeper frogs that live around the pond whistle so loudly that I once mistook them for the artificial scream of a museum alarm — I thought I’d beaten the security guards to the scene of a heist.
During the day, locals warn city folk that they shouldn’t set foot in the pasture unless they’re sure they can outrun a cow, mocking the novelty that our nature is to them. New York millennials Instagram the grounds on their weekend expeditions, and boomers summering in Williamstown for the Theatre Festival sip tea on the courtyard.
At night, though, teenagers seeking freedom from the reputational expectations of the town gather for a soiree atop the hill. Here, it’s just us and the cows. With the streets of our youth safely in view and our families tucked into the ant-sized homes below, we’re removed enough to inhabit our own world. Physically, of course, this is the same world we’ve always inhabited. To reach our bastion of adolescent liberation, we nod to the docents who gave us tours in elementary school or sneak wine past the tree we danced under as five-year-olds at the Tuesday night family concerts: a small taste of teenage rebellion on the grounds of our childhood.
When I was 13, German artist Thomas Schütte built “Crystal” outside, at the top of the Clark’s hill — a pentagonal hut made of light wood, just big enough for a cow to stand in if she tried (and she has). The Crystal, as we call it, is where the youth of Williamstown gather on these summer nights to listen to music, dance, eat, look at the stars and wonder at the little town below us.
With the Crystal, the Clark spilled its art into the surroundings, reinforcing its commitment to open and free beauty. The grounds, and thus the Crystal and other outdoor exhibitions, as advertised in the “hours” section of the Clark’s website, are open at all hours of the day, for free, to anyone who might want to come. The Clark’s central proximity in town and the many intersections it represents — of tourists and locals, humans and cows, students and professors, grandparents and teens — give it a feeling of idyllic freedom and remarkable harmony.
I revel in this harmony. The Clark shows that fine art has the potential to foster striking conversations across nature, dance and generations. It demonstrates a remarkable commitment to making these conversations accessible to all, including free admission for all of January 2022. Its position in Williamstown, though, means that this access to beautiful land and rich dialogue has mostly been enjoyed by those who already live in Williamstown with the advantages of having Williams in their backyard and constant access to nature next door. Its harmony is only honest for a radius of a few miles.
At the end of last August, my best friends and I planned a final picnic at the reflecting pools before we left for college. After we had parked and were almost at the unlocked passageway between the front and back of the museum, we heard the click of high heels behind the summer suavity of saxophone and trumpet coming from the patio on which we planned to eat. A trickle of expensively dressed elderly couples creeping from the reflecting pools back to the parking lot told us there was an exclusive event to celebrate a new exhibition. We almost left and took our picnic elsewhere, sheepish as to how our T-shirts and ripped denim would look next to the suits and pashminas of the art aficionados, but a museum employee sensed our hesitations and intercepted us.
“The grounds are open 24/7, to anyone,” she said. “Go enjoy the music.”