Olivier Meslay, an Art Expert in His Field

From the Louvre to Dallas to the green hills of Massachusetts... French curator Olivier Meslay has been at the helm of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, for seven years. And despite its relatively small size, this museum’s collections and its education and research program make it more than a match for the biggest American institutions.
© Tucker Bair/Clark Art Institute

“The Clark is a small museum compared to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it is greater than its size might suggest,” says Olivier Meslay, who has directed this astonishing institution since 2016. The Clark Art Institute plays on this paradox. It doesn’t have the reputation of the Met in New York City or the Art Institute of Chicago, and is far behind their surface area and visitor numbers. Yet despite being nestled away in the Berkshires, a hilly region in western Massachusetts, the museum embodies the best of the American art world.

Like most museums in the United States, the Clark came about thanks to philanthropists. Or one in particular – in this case, Robert Sterling Clark, the heir to a rich New York family who owned part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and had a majority stake in sewing machine manufacturer Singer. A born traveler who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in China and the Philippines, Sterling Clark moved to Paris in 1910. While there, he married an actress from the Comédie-Française, Francine Clary, and fell in love with European painting. He soon began collecting works of art by Dürer, Rodin, Sargent, and Renoir, whose Woman Crocheting became his first Impressionist acquisition.

Sterling and Francine Clark at the opening of their museum, 1955. Courtesy of the Clark Art Institute

The childless French-American couple originally considered donating their collection to the Petit Palais, the French capital’s fine art museum. In the end, they decided to open their own institution, just like Albert Barnes in Philadelphia and Henry Clay Frick in Manhattan. The only question was where. After looking at the Upper East Side, where they purchased three buildings on Park Avenue, and Cooperstown in the north of the state, they eventually settled on the little town of Williamstown, Massachusetts – “three hours by car from Boston and three and a half from New York City,” says Olivier Meslay.

Small but Perfectly Formed

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened in 1955. At the time, Art News magazine described it as “the best organized and most highly functional museum erected anywhere.” Sterling Clark died a year later and left a considerable amount of money to the establishment he had created. “This capital was carefully managed and overseen by a vigilant board of trustees, and provided the Clark with absolute independence,” says Olivier Meslay. Thanks to this endowment, the small museum partnered with the town of Williamstown and the neighboring Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, developing a series of educational and research activities to grow its international reputation.

The heart of the Clark is its heterogeneous collection, housed in a Neoclassical, white-marble building. The exhibits include works by Old Masters (Botticelli, Goya, Memling, Rubens), Impressionists (Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh), and leading American artists (Homer, Sargent). The museum also features an academic center offering a range of fellowships and a graduate program in the history of art in collaboration with the nearby Williams College. This program’s former students include Art Institute of Chicago director James Rondeau, former deputy chairman of Christie’s Paul Provost, and Olivier Meslay himself.

The Clark Art Institute, in the Berkshire Mountains, and its wing designed by Japanese architect Tadao Andō. © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Born in Morocco in 1956, Olivier Meslay is a graduate of the Sorbonne and the prestigious Ecole du Louvre, and spent many years working at the iconic Parisian museum, directing the department of American, British, and Spanish painting from 1993 to 2006. In 2001, he spent a year in residence at the Clark while preparing an exhibition on painter Henri-Pierre Danloux, and another on international influences in French landscape art at the turn of the 18th century. Accompanied by his wife, Laure de Margerie, who currently manages an inventory of French sculpture in the United States, he immersed himself in the museum’s incredible research library, which features 295,000 works in more than 72 languages.

Olivier Meslay is “profoundly French,” in his own words, but this stay in Massachusetts decided the rest of his career. It stuck in his mind when he later took the helm of collaborative projects with the Louvre-Atlanta and the Louvre-Lens, both of which aimed to decentralize the leading Parisian institution’s collections. He also reminisced about it upon becoming senior curator of European and American painting at the Dallas Museum of Art (he has “a deeply touching memory” of La Pausa, a villa owned by Coco Chanel on the French Riviera, which was meticulously recreated in a wing of the museum, complete with its furniture and artwork). He was then hired as the director of the Clark, an institution where each new activity gave rise to a new building – and a new architecture.

A Museum in the Heart of Nature

The original building, designed by Daniel Deverell Perry, was joined in 1973 by the Manton Research Center, created by Pietro Belluschi, to host the museum’s Research and Academic Program. More recently, the campus has expanded to welcome a building by Japanese architect Tadao Andō, winner of the Pritzker Prize. The understated project overlooks a lake and houses a coffee shop, a store, and a range of special exhibitions. These have included animals revisited by French artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne two years ago, and the colorful works of American artist Elizabeth Atterbury, on show until next January.

This extension was inaugurated in 2014 and represents a new chapter in the museum’s history, according to Olivier Meslay: “Thanks to this new wing, in the heart of an exceptional natural setting of forests and hills, we have been able to attract a number of living artists.” In 2020, the Clark invited six artists to take over the site – a 140-acre area – and create installations depicting the passage of time within nature. The resulting exhibition, Ground/work, was the first outdoor show organized by the Clark, and was a resounding success. To top it all off, one of the artists, Iranian sculptor Nairy Baghramian, went on to win the Nasher Prize!

A few of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne’s animals, displayed at the Clark Art Institute in 2021. © 2021 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris; photo by Thomas Clark/Clark Art Institute

The Clark’s director – who is also a researcher, aesthete, and Turner expert – finds joy in this “contact with incomparable collections.” As a longstanding admirer of the United States and its pragmatism – “the ability to do things without putting up unnecessary barriers” – Olivier Meslay also appreciates America’s approach to museums. While the traditionally intense relationship between France and its heritage has started to relax, sometimes at the expense of the public, “U.S. museums have prioritized the accessibility of their collections.” Here, “a museum is an educational tool rooted in the local community,” which in turn provides docents, volunteer guides who welcome visitors and foster dialogue between the institution and the rest of society.

While he still enjoys the “sometimes irritating” subtlety of the French, and draws on “the infinite variety of architecture, seasons, and landscapes” from his native country, Olivier Meslay is firmly established in the United States. He also recognizes that America’s passion for French heritage, demonstrated after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, must be maintained “beyond a mere curiosity for design, fashion, food, or dance.” Needless to say, this versatile figure wholeheartedly supports France’s push for more cultural hotspots in the U.S. through a network of residency programs. This ambitious approach enables French artists to share their own culture while “keeping a finger on America’s pulse.” He insists that his adopted country is “at the forefront, but often remains unknown outside of New York City and the East Coast.”

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.