WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. >> As the Clark Art Institute's fifth director, Olivier Meslay takes the helm at a transitional moment.
His challenge is to consolidate the vast changes made under his predecessor's decade-long building program, while positioning the institute as a dynamic player in a rapidly changing art landscape.
Meslay began his tenure last month, succeeding Michael Conforti, who retired in July.
He has a richly endowed museum and a globally recognized center for academic research to help achieve those goals, but needs to restore stability after years of construction upheaval, fill vacant key staff positions, and manage the payback of $76.4 million borrowed for the $170 million campus expansion.
Meslay, (pronounced ME-lay) cuts a trim, dapper figure. With an easy laugh and genial manner, he talked at his Clark office recently about his vision, management style and career path from the Louvre in Paris, to the Dallas Art Museum in Texas, to the Clark.
Born in Morocco and raised and educated in France, he speaks in accented English with a repertoire of hand gestures.
"We need to be respectful of the traditions of the institution," he said, "but at the same time bring in new ideas and new connections."
Those who know him say he's the just the man to do that.
"He will be a calming presence at the Clark," observed Dallas Morning News art critic Richard Brettell, who has known both Meslay and his predecessor for years. An expert on French Impressionism, Brettell teaches art history at the University of Texas at Dallas and has been a guest curator at the Clark, spending summers in Williamstown
"Michael [Conforti] was a doer," he said. "Olivier listens more. ... Michael cared about the position of the Clark in world, about doing things mega and dealing with the physical campus."
Meslay, he said, is more cautious; inclined to focus on the collections, the library and curatorial issues; and will restore a sense of stability after years of physical and staff dislocation.
"He is very erudite, suave and smart," Brettell said.
Conforti, too, praised his successor as "a very special candidate."
He said Meslay's broad experience in both European and American museums and his familiarity with the Clark through past fellowship residencies here made him an ideal choice.
"It my hope he'll deepen ties with European colleagues and initiate programs we haven't had in the past," Conforti said.
Meslay talks about the Clark as unique in the art world. With its stellar art collection, curators, research fellows, and graduate art-history students gathered under one roof, he sees it as an incubator for international thinking about visual studies.
Before joining the Clark, he was curator of European and American art at the Dallas Art Museum for seven years, serving as interim director from 2011–12, when he managed a staff of 250 (the Clark has 85).
In Paris, he held several positions at the Louvre including curator of British, American, and Spanish paintings, and chief curator of Louvre–Atlanta, a collaborative project with the High Museum in the Georgia capital.
It was his experience of the American museum scene that led him to see his future in the United States. American reliance on private philanthropy and the need to cultivate public support is invigorating compared to the "isolated," inward-looking atmosphere of government-supported museums in France, he said.
"People think a museum is static," he went on, but "it actually mirrors moments in history. It is only by responding to the society around it that it can evolve."
Years ago, he said, curators tended to mount "monographic" exhibitions tracing an artist's career from youth to old age. Shows today are more thematic and often link historical and contemporary periods — as did the Monet/Kelly exhibition did here last year.
"I'm not saying we have to do Renoir and Jeff Koons," he chuckled," but that's the kind of evolution I'm seeing reflected in the new generation of curators."
Museums can also offer more diverse programming — movies, lectures, travel — than other kinds of cultural organizations, he said.
An immediate priority is to fill two top curatorial and administrative positions. One is that of senior curator, formerly held by Richard Rand who is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The other is director of the Research and Academic program, held by Michael Ann Holly, who has retired.
He hopes to name a new senior curator within a month.
"I'm looking for somebody who is very energetic and connected with the new generation of curators all over the world," he said.
He'll take more time to assess other vacant posts, such as that of deputy director, formerly held by Thomas Loughman, who is now director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn.; and associate curator for contemporary projects, filled David Breslin, now at the Whitney in New York.
Overall, he said he wants to establish a collaborative spirit within and outside the Clark that can yield cost savings as well as programming benefits.
The Clark is carrying $76.4 million in debt to pay for the $170 million campus expansion. Although the institute raised $150 million in gifts and grants toward that undertaking, $56.4 million of the total $226.4 million in contributed and borrowed funds went to nonbuilding purposes like endowed curatorships, care of the collections and programming, according to the Clark's director of communications, Victoria Saltzman.
Moody's Investors Service gave the Clark a high Aa3 rating when the tax-exempt revenue bonds were issued by the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency in 2011 and 2015, but it raised concerns about the institute's reliance on investment income to cover nearly 80 percent of its $18 million average annual spending.
Meslay said the Clark has ample unrestricted funds to draw upon from its $350 million endowment and one of the best endowment ratios in the country, but as income fluctuates with the stock market, spending must adjust accordingly. He would rather the endowment had grown than remain flat over the last year or two because of the market, but is not overly concerned.
"Just because we are rich," he said, "doesn't mean we can't be frugal some of the time."
Asked about potential layoffs or outsourcing, measures used in the past during budget cutbacks, he said he sees "no predictable crisis ahead."
No stranger to Williamstown, Meslay was the unanimous choice of the search committee.
"Olivier first came to know the Clark as a fellow in our Research and Academic Program in 2000, and it was clear from the very beginning that he had a deep affinity for the Clark and for the unique relationship between our museum and research programs," said Francis Oakley, the Clark's interim director, at Meslay's appointment. "It is heartening to see such a long relationship culminate in this way."
Meslay and his wife, Laure de Margerie, an expert on French sculpture who spent most of her career at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, enrolled their three children in the Williamstown Elementary School when they were here in 2000 as research fellows.
They loved Williamstown so much they came back each winter for seven years, trading their Paris apartment for houses here.
Now they own a house of their own within walking distance of the Clark. Their children, grown, live in Paris.
When asked if as art lovers he and his wife missed Paris, Meslay said he visits often for professional reasons and they have a house in southwest France.
Then, pausing to reflect, he smiled: "As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in 'Casablanca,' "We'll always have Paris."
What's next ...
The Clark completes its $170 million campus expansion on Nov. 12 with the reopening of the Manton Research Center, which houses the library, public auditorium, research and academic program, and graduate program in art history.
The reconfigured first floor provides new public spaces including a gallery and study center for works on paper, a public reading room, and a bookstore and coffee bar.