Illustration Denise Nestor.
The 2020–21 issue of Art in America’s Annual Guide, released in December 2020, includes interviews with museum directors about how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. In October, A.i.A. spoke with Olivier Meslay, director of the Clark Art Institute, which was privately founded in 1955 and is best known for its collection of European and American fine and decorative arts dating from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. One of the first American museums to reopen after the worldwide Covid-19 closures, the Massachusetts venue has the advantage of a rural location and sprawling campus, both of which are conducive to social distancing on the institution’s grounds. Below, Meslay details the indoor safety measures that have worked for the Institute, and discusses counteracting the effects of art depravation.
We wanted to welcome our visitors back as soon as possible. After all, our mission is to provide art to the public. At the same time, of course, we wanted to ensure safety for both our public and our staff.
We reopened on July 11, and at the time, most American museums were still closed. So we knew we needed to be absolutely exemplary. Not only would any incident have been tragic for the people involved, but it would have impacted future museum reopenings, too. We’ve had visitors for three months now, and nothing bad has happened. Nobody got sick. Nobody complained. Visitors have been so happy to be here, and to look at art. For us, it’s been extremely rewarding.
To keep everyone safe, we take visitors’ names for contact tracing. We schedule timed visits. At first, we allowed only a small number of visitors per day in order to ensure that we would be able to manage. Slowly, we are starting to allow more people, but we are not yet at the maximum capacity per square foot allowed by the state.
We are also lucky to have our grounds, which include a reflecting pool and walking trails. Even when the museum was closed, we kept our grounds open to everyone, twenty-four seven. Recently, we installed an exhibition called “Ground/ work.” For this show, we asked six artists from around the world to create site-specific works for our campus.
“Ground/work” was in the planning stages for years: when I first arrived at the Clark in 2016, I wanted to address the Institute’s relationship to the nature that surrounds it. So right away, I invited guest curators Molly Epstein and Abigail Ross Goodman, both of whom have a history of working with public art, to organize this show. It was complete serendipity, but I’m so happy we have an outdoor show during this time.
The installation was extremely challenging: some artists couldn’t even get to their studios. And to install our solo show by Iraqi-German sculptor Lin May Saeed, which was on view from July through October 2020, we had art handlers working in shifts, one at a time, to allow for social distancing. This created all sorts of challenges.
The pandemic has meant both additional work and personal struggles for everyone. Now, the museum is open, and our graduate students and fellows are here. We are not operating exactly as we did before, but we brought life back to our campus. I’m very grateful to the staff for pulling this off. These few months that we’ve been open, viewers have been intensely involved in their experience here. I think that because people have been deprived, their visits feel more profound. In a way, we are rediscovering our mission through their eyes.