While Sterling and Francine Clark had collected art strictly for pleasure, they were interested in establishing a public art gallery for their collection. Sterling considered founding a museum in Cooperstown, New York, near his family’s home, or bequeathing everything to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but by 1946 he had decided to create a museum on property he purchased at the corner of Park Avenue and Seventy-Second Street in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, however, the Clarks resolved to build their museum outside of New York and were drawn to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
The Clarks had a strong familial tie to Williams College, where Sterling’s grandfather, Edward Clark (after whom the college’s Clark Hall is named), had served as a trustee from 1878 to 1882 and his father, Alfred Corning Clark, was a trustee from 1882 to 1886. Encouraged by a series of conversations with the leaders of Williams College and its art museum, Sterling and Francine Clark first visited Williamstown in the early autumn of 1949. This visit was followed by a warm and friendly correspondence between the leaders at Williams and the Clarks, who resolved to situate their museum within walking distance of the college. A charter for the new Institute was signed on March 14, 1950, just six short months after the Clarks first visited Williamstown.

In 1952 construction began on the white marble building that was to house the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. After a lengthy search process, Sterling Clark chose Daniel Perry as architect. Clark himself became highly involved in the building’s creation, even living in a small apartment in the back galleries of the museum when he and Francine arrived for stays in Williamstown. His desire for domestic gallery spaces is manifested in the ultimate design, which included small and intimate galleries with many large windows to provide views of the nearby pond and pastures.
In 1955 the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors under the guidance of its first director, former silver dealer Peter Guille. There were only two galleries on view and the majority of the works were not displayed. The Clark slowly unveiled its treasures during several exhibitions in the coming years; nonetheless, from the very beginning the Clark received critical acclaim. It was heralded in the Berkshire Evening Eagle as “a mecca of the art world” and celebrated as a “cultural asset” for Berkshire County as well as a resource for the Williams College community. The Boston Sunday Globe also praised its incredibly modern and innovative lighting and climate control systems. Even with such high praise and expectations, no one could have imagined what the Institute would become over the next half-century.

Growth and Change

A decade of immense change began at the Clark in 1960. Francine Clark died in April, four years after her husband, and the museum received a significant additional endowment that enabled new acquisitions and special programmatic initiatives in the coming years. Additionally, the Clark Professorship was established at Williams College. The professorship attracted art historians with high levels of expertise to the Clark, such as the noted Italian paintings and sculpture expert John Pope-Hennessy. Meanwhile, J. Phinney Baxter, former Williams College president; John E. Sawyer, president of Williams and a Clark trustee; Talcott Banks, future Clark board chair; and Dr. William Milliken, a leader among American museum directors, helped the Clark take its first major step toward establishing a center for research and academic programming. With this support, the Clark enlarged its educational and research focus, embraced the academic mission of the Institute’s 1950 charter, and established a graduate program

An art history library was the first requirement for establishing a graduate program. In 1964, the Clark opened its library after purchasing the entire bibliographical holdings of art historian Dr. W. R. Juynboll with a donation from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in New York.

Noted art historian George Heard Hamilton joined the Clark in June 1966 as director and head of the future graduate program.

In 1972, the first graduate class entered the Clark in an innovative program co-sponsored by Williams College and the Clark. This rigorous two-year program affords students a foundation for careers as academic and museum professionals. To accommodate such rapid growth, construction began on a new building, which was completed in 1973. Designed by Pietro Belluschi and The Architects Collaborative, the Manton Research Center houses a library, graduate seminar rooms, galleries, offices, and an auditorium. 

In 1977, David S. Brooke became director of the Clark and soon began a program of significant acquisitions in many areas, including paintings, silver, prints, drawings, and the decorative arts. Important purchases during this time included Vulcan Presenting Arms to Venus for Aeneas by Fran├žois Boucher, Young Christian Girl in Prayer by Paul Gauguin, and Port of Rouen: Unloading Wood by Camille Pissarro.

In 1994, Michael Conforti assumed leadership of the Clark and moved quickly to expand the Institute's national and international profile.
The Clark launched a number of new programs in the mid-1990s, including the Clark Fellows program, which enables leading academic scholars, museum professionals, and independent researchers from around the world to pursue research in art, art history, and visual culture at the Clark. The Clark also began to host symposia and conferences designed to contribute to a broader public understanding of the role of art in culture and introduced several new family-oriented programs. Moreover, partnerships with MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) have offered curatorial experience in contemporary art for graduate students through Clark-sponsored exhibitions.

In January 2001, the Clark announced its master plan to preserve and develop the 140-acre campus. The goal of the master plan was to continue expansion of the Clark’s many programs, satisfy the needs of growing visitorship, and preserve the unique character of the Clark and its surroundings for centuries to come.
That master plan came to fruition on July 4, 2014, when the Clark celebrated its grand opening and unveiled the Clark Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando; a renovated and expanded Museum Building designed by Selldorf Architects; and the dramatic rethinking of the landscape designed by Reed Hilderbrand. In November 2016, the master plan was completed with the renovation of the Manton Research Center, designed by Selldorf Architects

Michael Conforti retired in August 2015, ending a twenty-year tenure. In 2016, Olivier Meslay was named the Hardymon Director of the Clark. He continues the distinguished leadership of the Institute as it enters its next chapter.