Colby’s $100 Million Masterpiece

The Colby College Museum of Art comes of age with a beautiful new wing that houses an extraordinary act of generosity.

By Deborah Weisgall

It’s safe to say, I think, that no art museum in America or anywhere else has marked the opening of a major new wing with a lobster bake under a tent pitched in a field, complete with tin plates, soggy grass, a swing band, and a heartfelt exhortation to go back for seconds. But on a beautiful evening in July, that’s how the Colby College Museum of Art celebrated the opening of its Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, an elegant glass-sheathed box rising from the eastern slope of Mayflower Hill.

The party had been six years in the making. In 2007, the museum announced that long-time Maine residents Paula and Peter Lunder, the latter of whom is a 1956 graduate of Colby, had given it their collection, which consists primarily of American art. At the time, the collection was valued at over $100 million, and the Lunders are continuing to add to it. Their gift included a building, jointly donated by the Lunders and their cousins, the Alfond family, who, in 1993, sold the Dexter Shoe Company to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The Alfonds have been major supporters of Colby (one family member estimates that at least forty Alfonds have graduated from the college) and have given generously throughout the entire state.

The gift of the collection made the national news; it was a big surprise. Colby? Why let it go to a museum belonging to a small liberal arts college in Waterville when almost any major museum in the country would have been thrilled to have it? Few people outside of the art world knew anything about the Colby museum. But since its founding in 1959, it has quietly gone about building a remarkable collection, which the Lunders’ gift seamlessly complements. And Paula Lunder explained that in most large museums, the bulk of the art would have lived in storage. At Colby, much of it will be on view — and admission will always be free. From the beginning, the Lunders have emphasized that their collection is as much a gift to the community as to the college.

The Lunders’ collection comprises more than 500 works of art and includes paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Innes, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Alfred Miller, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Alex Katz, sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Elie Nadelman, Paul Manship, Alexander Calder, John Chamberlain, Kiki Smith, a large group of works by James McNeill Whistler, plus a trove of his letters and other material, and a group of magical contemporary works that defy categories, such as an installation of straight pins by Maya Lin and a grafted fruit tree by Sam van Aken.

The combination of the collection and the new pavilion makes Colby the largest museum in Maine, one of the most interesting museums in the country, and certainly one of the best American college museums. The Lunders, knowing that a museum succeeds because of its staff, also endowed a curatorial position. The lobster bake was their idea, too. It was in keeping with who they are, and with the way the museum and the college have always operated: It was unexpected, it was informal — there were no special reserved tables, whoopie pies were served for dessert — and it was a lot of fun.

The serious fun began in the museum’s galleries, which had opened earlier in the afternoon. Champagne was being poured in the entrance hall, aglow with neon Dan Flavin, LED Jenny Holzer, and silver Anish Kapoor, and the guests downed their drinks, headed for the galleries exhibiting the Lunder collection — and stayed there, enchanted.

Most of the nineteenth and twentieth century paintings hung in the Lunders’ house, and their scale is intimate. None is so imposing that it hogs space and attention, but each is of the highest quality. In the galleries, they seem to be having conversations with each other, asking questions and coming to surprising conclusions. The installations have made the entire collection into a cohesive work of art, weaving ideas, aesthetic and cultural, across time and geography.

Sharon Corwin, the museum’s director and chief curator, along with Elizabeth Finch, curator of American art, Hannah Blunt, curator for special projects, and Lauren Lessing, the curator of education, spent more than a year planning the opening exhibitions. Last March, the museum closed; the staff had four months to install the collection and get it right. As a teaching museum, Colby gives its staff the privilege of focusing exclusively on the art, not on breaking even or attracting crowds.

“The collection had been curated by the Lunders,” Corwin explains. “This was our response to what they had already done. It was very much a collaboration between the four of us. We asked ourselves: what stories can we tell? What themes can we draw out?” With the exception of the twentieth century modernism gallery and the contemporary gallery, they arranged the works of art thematically; “A Man’s World,” “Childhood,” “Artists and Models.” There is only one gallery dedicated to the work of a single artist: Whistler; and many of his images hang in the themed galleries as well.

The experience is intense. In the Childhood gallery, for example, a little Eve in a chemise, by the French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, clutches apples to her little chest. Her gaze is oblique, flirtatious. And then there’s a girl, by Seymour Joseph Guy, wearing gold hoop earrings and a simple apron. She poses in third position, like a dancer, and the neckline of her dress slips off her shoulder. She holds a jump rope, a toy, but her knowing expression is anything but playful. Another little girl, by the American folk painter Milton William Hopkins, wears a gold chain, a richly embroidered dress and pantaloons, green bow-tied slippers, and carries a basket of roses. Her cheeks are sunburned, and she smiles, the embodiment of her family’s prosperity. Three girls, two already sexual objects, the third an economic statement.

Each of the paintings is beautiful and convincing; except for Bouguereau, none of the painters is especially well known. And then there is a Winslow Homer watercolor, Fishing: two boys stand by the bank of a stream with rods fashioned from sticks. They are dappled with sunlight and with the green of leaves and grass, woven into a bower of branches. With all the time in the world, they wait, natural, unself-conscious, and free, for something to bite.

Boys and girls — they could be two different species. But a painting by John George Brown,Watching the Circus, changes the narrative. A posse of children perches on a rail fence. They are solemn and intent, and except for the clues of clothing — a skirt or a pair of trousers — it’s impossible to tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl. Except there is one slightly older child whose curls tumble from her straw boater — and her eyes are downcast. The circus left town long ago, but those children, and their dog, watch us across a distance of more than a century.

The genius of this installation is that these themes — and many others — resonate throughout the galleries. In the contemporary gallery a photograph by Jocelyn Lee, Untitled, shows a muddy, pocked intersection in northern Maine. Two barren roads stretch into the fog. Nailed to a telephone pole is a battered yellow sign with a pictograph of a running figure: Slow Children Playing. Hanging near that is a moving series of photographs by Nina Katchadourian, The Nightgown Pictures, or the Story About Why Stina’s First Nightgown Became Too Small, showing photographs that the artist’s grandmother took of her daughter (the artist’s mother) every summer at their home in Finland. In the next to last image, a gangly, beautiful young woman holds the handmade nightgown in front of her body. There is no way that she will ever wear it again. But the last photograph, taken several years later, shows the artist herself, a baby in the dress, beginning the cycle again. This time the model — her mother — was the photographer. The series is a tender meditation on childhood — and on old age.

The nightgown images hang on a wall beside a Duane Hanson sculpture of his father playing solitaire. For Lauren Lessing, the juxtaposition of those two pieces is one of the most moving in the exhibition. “As different as they are formally,” she says, “they both incorporate an image of the artist’s parent, and they are both reflections on family, identity, loss, and the passage of time.”

Elizabeth Finch pointed to a wall in the Multiple Modernisms gallery: an Elie Nadelman poised and voluptuous Circus Performer stands beside an exuberant painting by Samuel Rosenberg,Sideshow. In the corner an Alexander Calder mobile dances from the ceiling — it could be a spinoff from the artist’s marvelous circus at the Whitney Museum. And those children in Brown’s painting would have been entranced, though they would have been grandparents — if they were still alive when these works of art were made.

During the planning process, Hannah Blunt noticed a wealth of images having to do with industry and water.  The gallery Working the Waters plays with moods and attitudes. There are moments of dramatic urgency: Winslow Homer sketches women waiting anxiously on the beach in a storm and fishermen confronting a crashing, implacable sea. John Singer Sargent paints a languid watercolor of passengers lounging in a yacht’s deckchairs on a rainy day. Rockwell Kent’s tugboat steams down the Hudson, a jaunty whorl of smoke streaming from its chimney, the Palisades a luscious, dark swath of color. Whistler composes a delicate still life of lobster pots strung like seaweed along the beach. Louis Comfort Tiffany, who began his career as a painter, makes a watercolor of an African-American family of tin peddlers on the beach at Sea Bright.

Race, suggests Sharon Corwin, is one of the themes running through these installations. The curators hung a brilliant, exuberantly violent oil by Thomas Hart Benton, Arts of the West: in one small panel, a cowboy breaks three wild horses, a shoot ’em out occurs, and a hoedown, and a card game. Hanging beside it is a Jacob Lawrence gouache, Builders #1: burly black construction workers at the job. But the man in the foreground seems set to saw off his hand, not the plank that hand is bracing: a trick of perspective, a violent, self-destructive truth.
I could go on. “They’re never going to get anybody to leave here and go to the lobster bake,” said a curator from a New York museum as she exclaimed over Nocturne, a Whistler etching of the Venetian lagoon, which was hanging near an image of a balcony in Amsterdam. More water: what it does to light, how Whistler rendered reflection in black and white.

But everybody was, finally, hungry and ready to party. In the tent the piles of lobster and corn diminished as seconds were had, the band played, the sun set behind the Sol LeWitt drawing of undulating bands of color that fills the eastern wall of the new pavilion. A few clouds echoed the red and yellow in the drawing; the darkening sky turned the color of the blue bands. We stood outside watching. Then Paul Lunder thanked everybody for coming. A few brave souls belted out the Colby alma mater, and from behind the new math and science building fireworks — the bright, exploding kind, not the permanent, quiet ones inside the museum — shot into the night.

Deborah Weisgall’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. She has written two novels and a memoir.

Photo: Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #559. Colby College Museum of art. ©2013 The LeWitt Estate/Artists rights society (ARS), New York. ©Trentbellphotography