New Treasure in Maine

Trent Bell Photography / The Lewitt Estate / Artists Rights Society

The southeast façade of the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion offers a view of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #559. 

Colby College perches on Mayflower Hill at the western edge of Waterville, a tired post-industrial city in central Maine. Brick classrooms and dorms, mostly nostalgic, neo-Georgian architecture, are ranged around curving roads. Relatively new, the campus still feels like a work in progress. Colby is the northern-most school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, a kind of scaled-down Ivy League. In contrast to Waterville, it is booming. It is increasingly selective but remains resolutely unpretentious, its mascot a white mule. In January the college can feel as isolated as the Arctic. It is an unlikely place to find an important museum, and few people know that Colby has one.

One cold afternoon in May, glad I’d brought a down vest, I walked past ground crews raking seed into a swath of lawn surrounding a new building. A cube, five stories tall, the structure is sheathed in squares of dark glass: the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, a 26,000-square-foot addition to the Colby College Museum of Art, designed by the Los Angeles firm Frederick Fisher and Partners. A combination of galleries, storage space, offices, classrooms, and studios, the pavilion opens in July with an exhibition of works from the Lunder collection, which was given to Colby in 2007 by Paula and Peter Lunder; he is a 1956 graduate of the college.

The Lunder collection comprises 500 works of art, including major paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and James McNeill Whistler as well as an astonishing collection of Whistler’s etchings, watercolors, and pastels, together valued at more than $100 million. The pavilion, donated by the Lunders and their cousins the Alfond family, makes the museum the largest in Maine; the Lunders’ gift combined with the museum’s already superb collection of American and contemporary art turns Colby into arguably one of the finest college museums in the country.

Three blocks of COR-TEN steel, a sculpture by Richard Serra, are deployed on the terrace at the museum’s entrance. The red-brown glass sheathing echoes the patina of the steel. The sleek pavilion merges seamlessly with the existing museum and the scale of the campus. Its glass does not flash. It is not arrogant; it gleams with confidence—and with decorum, rare in our age of assertive museum architecture. It seems a piece of sculpture itself, Serra’s brutal masses magnified and hollowed out and rendered translucent.

Visible through the glass, an enormous striped drawing by Sol LeWitt fills one interior wall the height and width of the facade. As you approach the museum, those two signal statements of American minimalism—undulating bands of red, yellow, and blue, and a steel Stonehenge—announce its ambition. Turn in the other direction, and you see the view from Colby’s hill: east over the Kennebec River to the ridges that parallel the coastline about 50 miles away and north to Sugarloaf and Katahdin, the peaks of the Appalachians. That view is familiar, too. We’ve seen it often hanging on museum walls. Its expanse and sense of remoteness cannot have changed much since 1813, when Colby was chartered.

Courtesy Colby Museum

 

In the first part of the 19th century, Fitz Henry Lane, Frederic Church, and Thomas Cole sailed along Maine’s coast and up its rivers, lured by the landscape and oblique northern light. They returned to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia with seductive paintings of sublime nature that helped attract more settlers, then wealthy rusticators, and then more artists. Those pioneering artists were equally aware of the landscape’s economic potential: the resources of an accessible wilderness.

Waterville profited from the lumber of those forests and from mills powered by the Kennebec. Between 1810 and 1820, the town’s population grew to more than 1,300, and its inhabitants raised funds to establish the Maine Literary and Theological Institution. The new college did not set out to educate rich gentlemen. Though Congregationalism was the official religion of Massachusetts (until 1820, Maine was part of that state), the Baptist church was expanding rapidly. Ministers were needed to serve working-class settlers and backcountry farmers who had come to try their luck in Maine’s cold climate. In 1833, students established the first abolitionist society based at an American college. In 1871, the same year Smith College was founded, Colby began admitting women. The 1813 charter stated that the school would not discriminate, and in the 1920s and 1930s, when many colleges established quotas limiting the number of Jewish students, Colby, unlike other private colleges in Maine, did not.

Courtesy Colby Museum

For more than a century, Colby stood in the industrial center of town, next to the river and the shipyards and the factories—paper, heavy machinery, and textiles: the sources of Waterville’s prosperity until they started closing down in the 1980s. Hemmed in by railroad tracks and warehouses, the college had nowhere to expand. In 1930, William H. Gannett, a publisher from Augusta, the state capital, offered to move the college there. But the citizens of Waterville rallied, and by 1931—at the height of the Great Depression—they had raised enough money to buy land on Mayflower Hill, where the college finally moved in 1952.

The new campus made it possible to think about a museum. In 1959, the college dedicated two rooms in a new music and art building to displaying gifts of American paintings and folk art. The museum has flourished much the way the college has: by paying attention to its community and by focusing on what it can do well. Hugh J. Gourley III, the museum’s second director, recruited in 1966 from the Rhode Island School of Design, built the collection with a single-minded commitment.

For the most part, Gourley concentrated on American work, which was still largely undervalued. He sought quality, not famous names, and he never intended to replicate a survey course in art history. A courtly man, he befriended artists and collectors. Many of his donors were local. Ellerton Jetté, whose Waterville company’s ads featuring a man in a dress shirt and a black eye patch made Hathaway shirts famous (until that factory finally closed in 2002), followed up his initial museum gift of folk art with a collection of American Impressionists. Willard Cummings, one of the founders of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture just up the Kennebec River, which brought to Maine artists making their reputations in New York, donated his collection of watercolors and drawings and introduced Colby to a new generation of artists with a Maine connection.

Artists had never stopped coming to Maine to work and sometimes to live. In 1883, Winslow Homer settled in Prouts Neck, on the coast just south of Portland. Turning his back on the fancy summer colony his family was developing on that rocky headland, he looked out to sea and painted implacable wind and water, metaphors for the diminished importance of human beings in a Darwinian world.

John Marin first came to Maine in 1914 and later spent summers on Cape Split, producing work whose exhilarating tension arises from his instinct both to abstract and to record what he saw. Childe Hassam, Frank Benson, George Bellows, Robert Henri, and Rockwell Kent took summer refuge on Maine’s idyllic islands. After World War II, artists kept coming, often to schools like Skowhegan; its alumni and faculty include Ellsworth Kelly, Alex Katz, and Louise Nevelson, who was born in Russia but grew up in Rockland. Of the 30 artists represented in a contemporary gallery of the Lunder collection, 13 have ties to Skowhegan. In our wired era, artists like the photorealist Richard Estes, who lives on Mount Desert Island, have been able to keep a base in Maine year-round while maintaining international careers.

Gourley began a long friendship with Alex Katz, who had bought a house in Maine in 1956 and whose intimate views of his inland landscape, bordering on abstraction, helped shift ideas of what could be monumental in art. In 1992, Katz gave 400 works to the museum; later he added another 400 prints, drawings, paintings, and cutouts. Norma Marin donated a large group of works by her late husband John Marin and has promised the museum her collection of American modernist photographs; the museum has also been promised an archive of prints and drawings by Richard Serra. In addition, Katz, through his foundation, began buying art for the museum, and the collaboration has continued under the present director, Sharon Corwin. Katz’s gifts range from the work of emerging artists to paintings by Marsden Hartley (born down the river in Lewiston), Adolf Gottlieb, Chuck Close, and Jennifer Bartlett.

In 1999, Paula and Peter Lunder funded a wing to provide exhibition space for the museum’s burgeoning American collection. Their interest in art began, Paula Lunder told me in a phone conversation, when they first moved to Waterville and for something to do on Sunday afternoons began driving around to antique shops. Paula Lunder had grown up in Chicago, her husband in Boston; in 1959 Peter Lunder came to Maine and joined his cousins and his uncle Harold Alfond, who had married Dorothy Levine, a girl from Waterville, and, after selling his first shoe business, had bought an abandoned factory and started what would become the Dexter Shoe Company.

In 1993, the family sold Dexter Shoe to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for stock. The deal turned out to be one of the few that lost Buffett money: In 2002, Dexter shut down, but the family’s stock has appreciated, and at the time of Alfond’s death in 2007 it was worth more than $3 billion. The Alfonds have shared some of this windfall with central Maine, whose counties, among the poorest north of the Mason-Dixon Line, have been unable to reinvent their economy after the flight of manufacturing. In addition to donating athletic facilities and dormitory buildings to Colby as well as to other Maine colleges, the Alfonds have helped to build an innovative cancer care center in Augusta and donated a community center to Waterville. Shortly after Harold Alfond’s death in 2007, his foundation announced an initiative that gives $500 to every baby born in Maine: seed money for a college fund.

 

Loyalty to Colby played a big part in the Lunders’ decision to give their art to the museum, but Paula Lunder was quick to add that a major institution might have put much of the collection in storage. Here it will be seen and enjoyed. The Lunders have stated that their collection is a gift to the people of Maine, not only to the college. Admission to the museum is free and will stay that way. The Lunders are homey people, and comfortable red lounge chairs are clustered in the entrance hall of the new pavilion.

Corwin met me there, that bright May afternoon. She plugged in a sculpture by Dan Flavin that glowed neon pink on the wall, and we waited as a Jenny Holzer across the room booted up to spill its LED cascade of morphing truisms and truths.  Corwin walked with me through the galleries, which were closed for reinstallation. Leisure is one of the perks of being an academic museum. So is freedom from constraints. “We don’t have to worry about gate,” Corwin says.

The museum’s holdings make no attempt to be comprehensive. “We arranged the galleries by theme,” Corwin explained. They have also arranged the galleries to ask questions. An Alex Katz painting—12 feet long, of a birch-bark canoe against vivid lake blue—hangs near Claes Oldenburg’s giant eraser with its spiky Mohawk and opposite a crushed-car sculpture by John Chamberlain; facing them hangs a small, bleak view of Penobscot Bay by Fairfield Porter. These works were made in the 1970s, though at first glance, it seems like the Porter could have been painted a century earlier. There are correspondences: objects blown up beyond ordinariness or squashed into violent abstraction. Katz’s canoe and Porter’s ocean share a contemporary isolation, an expression of absence. And Maya Lin’s 2008 Pin River-Kissimmee, assembled with hundreds of pushpins—has she responded to ideas of both the transformation of materials and the poignancy of delicate observation?

The collection is intimate, and many of these works have hung on the Lunders’ walls. A small Sargent oil, Study of Three Figures, shows two naked boys, one about 12 and the other 5, as sensuous as any Venus and Cupid; the clothed woman in the background hovers like a chaperone. Beside the oil hangs a sketch Sargent made of that same dark-haired adolescent from behind. Visible through a doorway is a haunting double portrait by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, often dismissed as sentimental and decorative. Two women, separated by the painted line of a sapling, seem to be submerged in a green lawn. One sits on a bench, the other holds a lyre, like a muse. The seated woman is Dewing’s wife, Marie, an accomplished painter herself; the other is his mistress.

In the gallery called “Views from Abroad,” there is a glorious panorama of Venice by Thomas Moran that channels J.M.W. Turner. Sunshine spills into the lagoon like fireworks. Later, Moran took his fascination with light west with him on the great U.S. Geological Survey and helped convince Congress with his paintings of Yellowstone and Yosemite to preserve their subjects as national parks. In “Multiple Modernisms,” three sculptures by Elie Nadelman ground a cacophony of pattern and figures: familiar images by Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, a patchwork Maurice Prendergast promenade, a wild and crazy Thomas Hart Benton hoedown, an early oil by Edward Steichen as blue as a photographic cyanotype, a scared and sullen boy by Robert Henri. In a gallery devoted to rivers and the ocean, a tugboat by Rockwell Kent steams down the Hudson, its smoke a juicy swirl of white painted before he found his own austere voice. Then look at some Whistlers—Chelsea in Ice veils the Thames in virtuosic whites, and Marine: Blue and Grey, painted almost 30 years later, simplifies harmonies of color from the sea and sky.

This kind of installation, in terms of mixed-up timelines and intuitive juxtapositions, is not feasible for most museums. It is idiosyncratic and took months to achieve. Corwin and the museum’s curators have assembled the collection itself into a work of art that disturbs and moves and over and over again surprises us.

Outside the museum, students walked around in shorts and flip-flops, willing the weather to be warm. Trees were beginning to leaf, and the hills shimmered in shades of green. You could see the season shifting toward summer. The Colby Museum of Art offers a changing view, too. It gives us new ways to think about how America’s past and present are reflected in art; it reminds us how much a museum can achieve and how much it can give.

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