WATERVILLE – It’s easy to feel giddy about the expanded Colby College Museum of Art.
The nearly completed Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion will transform the Colby museum from what it is now — an exemplary small-college museum with a deep collection that emphasizes American masters, modernism and contemporary art — into something else altogether: The largest museum in Maine with a collection that rivals any museum of its size and scope in the country.
But museum director Sharon Corwin wasn’t in a boastful mood when she offered a tour of the museum last week. Of course, she’s proud of the new wing and pleased with the art that is being hung there.
But the Lunder Pavilion isn’t about being the biggest or the best, she said. It’s about making the best use of an extraordinary gift and turning that gift into something that benefits the entire state.
“This is a gift of art to the people of the state of Maine,” she said.
The gift is courtesy of Peter and Paula Lunder, local folks with deep roots in central Maine and at Colby College. Peter Lunder graduated from Colby in 1956 and went to work for his uncle, Harold Alfond, at Dexter Shoe Co. soon after.
With time on their hands and not a lot of entertainment options in central Maine, the young couple filled their weekends with jaunts around the region in search of antiques and other curiosities.
Soon, they expanded their interest to European and American art, and began a collection based on the advice and counsel of curators, museum directors, artists, dealers and consultants across the country.
Over 50 years, the Lunders assembled a collection valued at more than $100 million, with paintings, prints and photographs by Georgia O’Keeffe, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Inness and Ansel Adams.
Later, they began collecting contemporary art, adding pieces by Louise Nevelson, Jenny Holzer, Romare Beardon and dozens of others. They bought this art because they liked it and wanted to see it on the walls of their homes.
The collection is not a survey of art-making trends or specialties, although the Lunders did focus on works by Whistler and artists from New Mexico. Instead, it reflects the evolving and eclectic tastes of a passionate couple, Corwin said.
“This collection is what comes together over four decades of collecting for two people,” she said.
A few years ago, the Lunders gave it all to Colby — some 500 pieces and counting.
In making their gift, the Lunders cited their long-standing relationship with the school and their appreciation of the museum as a place of learning. They have been longtime benefactors of Colby, and among its most ardent cheerleaders.
Much of their collection was based on the advice of Colby’s late museum director Hugh Gourley, as well as Corwin in more recent years. (She joined Colby in 2003 and became museum director in 2006.) There were others who offered insight and advice, but the Lunders always turned first to Colby for ideas and feedback.
“Through these relationships we have come to a deeper understanding of the importance of art within a liberal arts curriculum and a greater appreciation of our country,” the Lunders said in a statement.
To make the gift resonate, Colby raised money to build the new pavilion, which will open in July. It will house about 250 of the 500-plus pieces in the Lunder collection.
Parts of the museum have been open throughout the construction process, but it closed entirely on Saturday to allow time and space for the final details. It will reopen with a reception on July 13 and to the public on July 14.
The pavilion itself is a work of art. It was designed by Frederick Fisher of Los Angeles, who has done previous work at the Colby museum. In contrast to the traditional buildings of the college quad, the pavilion stands as a glass prism that reflects both the natural surroundings of the Mayflower Hill campus and the red-brick Georgian-style architecture of nearby buildings.
From the outside, the glass structure reveals a three-story wall drawing by Sol LeWitt and serves as a handsome backdrop for Richard Serra’s “4-5-6″ outdoor sculpture.
The pavilion gives the museum four new galleries with about 9,500 square feet of additional exhibition space. That brings Colby’s total exhibition space to 38,000 square feet, or about 10,000 more than the Portland Museum of Art.
Final decisions about the work that will be shown when the pavilion opens in July are still being tweaked. But last week’s tour offered enough insight to draw a few conclusions.
First and foremost: We as residents are fortunate for the generosity of Peter and Paula Lunder. They are not provincial folks. They are worldly in taste and vision, and could have given this collection to any museum. And to be sure, any museum would have taken it.
That they gave it to Colby speaks directly to their commitment to Maine and to the people of Maine. The Colby museum is free and open to the public. There are no barriers between you and the art.
Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: