The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown opens its doors to public tomorrow, revealing its new and expanded 140-acre Massachusetts campus, which has been more than a decade (and an estimated $145 million) in the making.

During a recent visit, the impressive, transformational large-scale project inspired former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens to refer to the 'Bilbao effect', perhaps the ultimate compliment for a cultural institution looking to broaden its reach. 'This is not Bilbao,' Clark Art Institute director Michael Conforti says. 'Well, it's the Berkshires' Bilbao.'

The scheme's precisely planned program of interlocking projects has overhauled a place best known for a private collection laden with Old Masters and Impressionist masterpieces gone public. That this reinvention can be described as both successful and subtle is a tribute to its creators, who focused on adding new buildings, renovating existing ones and uniting them within the large site.

The works were led by a trio of architects: Tadao Ando, whose contribution includes the complex's brand new entrance centrepiece, the stone, concrete and glass Visitor Centre; Annabelle Selldorf, who renovated the existing Museum Building, adding gallery space and vastly impoving circulation; and Gary Hilderbrand, who rethought the campus' landscape and worked closely with Ando on a new one-acre reflective pool on site. 

'The Visitor Centre was designed to become a part of the landscape, to make visitors conscious of the seasonal changes, of nature,' says Ando, pointing through a window of the building to a wall that stands between the three-tiered reflecting pool and the dramatic rise of Stone Hill in the near distance (the property's natural hill, on which sits an earlier Ando-designed building completed in 2008). 'Without this wall, you wouldn't focus on the hill. The wall makes you aware of it, enhances its existence,' he adds. And the intervention doesn't break with the museum's past: the wall is made from the same Minnesota granite as the 1973 Clark building designed by Pietro Belluschi.

The two-storey Visitor Center, most of which is underground, has a lightness that belies its many uses, including an ample space with high ceilings for temporary exhibitions, a shop, and a café. Clark associate director Tom Loughman says: 'What this project has done most fundamentally is to drive under the earth, out of the view of our visitors, so many of the functions that were contained in not only the maintenance building that used to be on this site but also those that were elsewhere on the campus.' All of the physical plant functions, including the museum's first proper loading dock, are now located completely below ground and are accessible through a network of tunnels that connect to other buildings.

One of those buildings is the original 1955 home of the Clark, a classically styled and domestically scaled white marble structure devised by Daniel Perry. Now approached through a granite and glass corridor that opens onto an Ando-designed pavilion, the renovated building retains its intimate scale while enhancing circulation among newly luminous rooms that contain selections from the institute's permanent collection of some 9,000 works.

'We took what had previously been a kind of racecourse - these elongated galleries - that now read much more clearly as spaces that are specific to certain parts of the collection and give you a chance to pause as you move around,' says Selldorf, standing in a square, skylit gallery that was once the entrance to the museum. 'To support that, there is a constant interplay with the exterior - looking out the windows is as important as looking at the art and finding the relationship between nature and the paintings and the sculptures.'

The Clark's opening special exhibitions of ancient bronzes from the Shanghai Art Museum and, in the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a series of sculptures by David Smith will soon be joined by abstract masterworks - think Pollock, Rothko and Newman - from the collection of Washington DC's National Gallery. Meanwhile, Conforti is already looking ahead: commissions from Thomas Schütte and possibly Janet Cardiff are in the works, and James Turrell will soon stop by to consider a sky-space.

'It's interesting to think how the landscape will now begin to be used and what in this generation and beyond we might do here on this land,' says Conforti, sidling up to an 1874 sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux of one figure whispering in the ear of another. 'What you see now is not what you eventually will get, and it's intriguing to think about that process.'

TAGS: MUSEUMS