Ten Minutes With Olivier Meslay
The Clark’s new director, noted curator, scholar
Photo by Roman Iwasiwka
Olivier Meslay leaves his post as associate director at the Dallas Museum of Art to lead the Clark Art Institute on August 22. He first visited The Clark 23 years ago while interning at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, before taking a position at the Louvre. Then in 2000, he and his wife, Laure de Margerie, embarked on a one-year fellowship at The Clark with three young children in tow. He was researching for a Paris exhibition of John Constable as seen by Lucian Freud; she was working on a monographic exhibition by Charles Cordier.
What happened during that one-year fellowship?
This was the first moment I really understood the complexity, the richness of The Clark. The academic program is very important. The graduate program is embedded in The Clark. No other museum combines these different aspects of the art world—the museum aspect, the research aspect, and the teaching aspect. The museum is one of the best you can find in this country, with its collection, its setting, its environment. I’ve always worked in large institutions, and it’s important for me to work with great works.
What made you take this new post, replacing Michael Conforti?
The Clark has been for the past 20 years one of the most exceptional places that I know. It is such an amazing environment—a combination of nature and architecture.
What does it mean to be assessor for The Clark’s fellowship program, which you did prior to accepting this director position?
I was part of the five-person team reviewing all the applications for fellowship. It was a rotating position, bringing our own experiences and confronting ourselves with new ideas.
How do you perceive The Clark’s position in the world of art institutions?
It’s known all over the world for two things. First, the immense quality of the collection. If you need to do an exhibition, you need to look at The Clark’s collection to help you to make the exhibition. Everybody who is doing something has to look at The Clark’s collection to see if it has the piece that is unique. It’s a huge resource for curators. Secondly, its research and academic program has 300 fellows from 30 countries per year. Because of this quality of fellowship, you can be completely devoted to your research—for three, five, ten months be completely immersed. It’s luxurious and at the same time an austere and studious environment. People all over the world are very appreciative of that. The most welcoming aspect of the program is the time, the respect, the coziness of the place. That makes The Clark.
Where are you originally from?
My wife and I are from Paris, where we lived for 30 years. I was born in Morocco, and my wife was born in London.
What interested you about the position?
Two aspects of The Clark I really want to focus on is excellence of The Clark, to be at the very top of its field. The graduate program is one of the best in the country. The research and academic program is very well respected. Secondly, to keep a very subtle balance between an amazing collection and the graduate program and the research program. Also, the natural environment. The Clark is an estate, with 140 acres. It’s a gem in itself, and it needs to be maintained and preserved.
What are some of your plans? Making full use of the new combination of buildings has not been something that is done until now. Improvements need to be finished this summer to the library, then we can fully use this amazing campus.
What will your spouse be doing when you two move here? She will continue working as director of French sculpture census, at the University of Texas at Dallas and Nasher Sculpture Center. It’s a project she created from scratch. She is collecting information on French sculptures in American collections. She’s doing it with six different American institutions and four French institutions. It’s an independent project. She is looking forward to the move. She is as amazed with the beauty of the Berkshires as we first were. We are not discovering the place. We are completely in love with this place.
Your kids—now in their 20s and in Paris. What do they think?
It’s also home for them, and they look forward to visiting us.
What do you enjoy doing outside of the museum environment?
We are very curious of people and places, and that’s one of the reasons we moved from Paris to Dallas—and to the U.S.—was to discover another environment and another people. This is what drives us: to discover. It’s the core of our motivation. From that, we find a lot to do. I think it’s very important to talk to people to understand a place. Also, I like to read novels and poetry.
What do you enjoy doing outside?
I walk as much as I can. I like to look at birds. I’m by nature a very urban guy, but I do enjoy the outdoors.
What sights do you like to see in the Berkshires?
There is so much to do here, and you can never get enough of one place. What’s so fascinating about New England is the stratification of culture, times, moments of history, moments of literature, moments of art.