Reimagining Municipal Space With Art In Williamstown

Dec 7, 2017

Williamstown, Massachusetts has reimagined its town hall with the help of a Williams College student with an eye for detail. 

Town hall serves as the municipal and police headquarters for the town of about 7,700.

Town Manager Jason Hoch says the building is historic.

“This building started its life as a Williams College fraternity house. In the mid-60’s when Williams did away with fraternities, this was the one fraternity house that the college did not get and was given to the town and opened as town hall in 1967,” Hoch says.

And now it’s a temporary art gallery as well. Straddled in the corner of the selectboard room is a 22-inch television playing a commercial.

Curator Alex Jen is a Williams College junior:

“The artist – who’s Ilana Harris-Babou – is talking about the history of wood and sort of the beauty of old materials and how you can take that material and make it into something new. And it’s a spoof of Restoration Hardware, which is like this luxury furniture line selling these beautiful tables that were made out of barn wood or whatever and then mark them up to $3,000, $4,000 each,” Jen says.

The five artists in the exhibit are the new visiting studio art faculty at Williams College.

“And she’s taking that ad and sort of spoofing Restoration Hardware by calling her video Reparation Hardware, which you know speaks to the idea that after Civil War the slaves could be ‘repaid’ for the injustices that were carried out,” Jen says. “Each of the artists – instead of responding to a neutral white-cubed that you would see in a gallery space that you would see in a museum – here each of the artists had their personal narratives of their work run up and be troubled, and really sort of had to think through even more deeply how the themes in their work could respond to the site and maybe even critique the history of this building.”

Jen says he was challenged by the lack of space on campus for an exhibit, so he went to town hall. The exhibit shows innovative art co-existing in nooks and crannies scattered around town hall – something Hoch, the town manager, says took some getting used to. 

“And I think that’s a sort of an interesting place for us to be, to be able to host something that challenges assumptions and makes people think – it’s OK if it makes people squirm a little bit too,” Hoch says.

Down in the basement, there’s junk everywhere. Bicycles are piled next to old police evidence lockers and filing cabinets.

“It’s completely dim,” Jen says. “all you can see is a glowing rectangle off in the distance. You can’t really tell what’s going on but you are sort of sucked in to this story that is playing out ironically enough on the old bar of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.”

A video by Zak Arctander shows a group of teenagers at the Becket Quarry watering hole enjoying a weekend. Underage drinking is depicted, and one teen is being peer pressured to jump into the water below.

Up the elevator to the second floor, a painting by Kim Faler hangs on the wall. Jen says the large metal piece is called “Give Me Your Anxiety,” which shows a handwritten note-to-self rusted into the piece withering away.

“Right in the middle of business – the accountant’s office is right across the hallway, but we’re just in an elevator hallway,” Jen says. “Kim decided that she wanted to paint this wall like a saccharin green color like a bright Post-It note.”

Down the hall, a video by Allana Clarke closely and uncomfortably examines the back of her head; a white board scrawled with obituaries of forgotten black residents of Williamstown on the third-floor meeting room by Nicole Maloof; and obsolete office items cased in ceramics by Ilana Harris-Babou scattered throughout town hall.

The exhibit closes Friday.