WATERVILLE — When the Colby College Museum of Art reopens this week, it will become the largest museum in Maine.
It’s not in Portland or Bangor, or even in the arts-crazy midcoast city of Rockland.
It’s in the central Maine community of Waterville, population 15,000. With the opening of the new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion to the public on July 14, the Colby College museum will boast 38,000 square feet of exhibition space, about 13,000 more than the Portland Museum of Art.
And it’s already creating a buzz not just throughout the art community in Maine but also nationwide.
The private liberal arts college expanded its museum, admission to which is free, to house a gift of art that was promised by Peter and Paula Lunder, a wealthy Maine family with deep ties to Colby, Waterville and central Maine. The gift includes a sweeping array of paintings and sculptures by some of the most important and influential artists of the past two centuries, including Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jenny Holzer and Donald Judd.
“We knew that if we left our collection to Colby, it would be shown,” said Peter Lunder, a 1956 graduate of Colby and a longtime supporter of the college. “If we gave it to a big-city museum in Boston or New York or someplace else, it would end up in storage. So we decided to give it to Colby.”
The Lunder Collection totals more than 500 pieces of mostly American art, and is valued at more than $100 million.
It is considered one of the most important private art collections ever assembled, and is expected to serve as a transformative gift for the museum, the community and potentially the arts landscape in Maine.
“I think the Lunder Collection does for Maine and for the Northeast what Crystal Bridges did for Arkansas and the South,” said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., citing the recently opened museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
“Colby is no longer just a place that art lovers might drop in when they are in the neighborhood. They now will want to make a plan to fly in just for this.”
Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, expressed a similar sentiment.
“This takes Colby to another level. Instead of being a curiosity, Colby is a major player,” he said, adding that he does not view the reopening of the museum as competition. “Whatever is good for Colby is good for the PMA, Bowdoin, the Farnsworth, Ogunquit. Anyone who is going to make a pilgrimage to come to Maine to see Colby will also come to see us.”
‘THIS IS A GIFT … TO THE STATE’
Colby spent $15 million on the new minimalist wing, which gives the classic red-brick campus its first modern building: a glass- and metal-encased prism that features as an architectural focal point a three-story Sol LeWitt wall painting visible from Mayflower Hill Drive, which traverses the campus.
The college named the new wing in recognition of the friendship between Maine philanthropist Harold Alfond and his nephew, Peter Lunder. Alfond ran Dexter Shoe Co., and put his nephew to work for him soon after Lunder graduated from Colby.
The Lunders settled in Waterville, raised their children there, and began collecting art at antique shops across Maine.
“That was our entertainment,” Paula Lunder said. “There wasn’t much to do in Waterville back then, so we would get in the car and drive around to all the antique shops on weekends.”
They always seemed to gravitate to paintings, and eventually befriended longtime Colby museum director Hugh Gourley, who offered advice.
Their collecting regimen quickly expanded from antique-shop curiosities to serious works of art by some of the most famous painters in history. They began collecting European art, and settled on American art because it was more affordable and readily available.
“We always bought what we liked and what we were advised was great quality,” Peter Lunder said in an interview, with his wife, at his Portland office last week.
Together, they amassed their collection over 30-plus years, and bought with the intent of filling their homes in Maine, Massachusetts and Florida with their purchases. Eventually, as the collection grew, the Lunders purchased art they knew would serve a teaching institution well. They knew early on they would give their collection away someday. They just weren’t sure where.
Colby emerged as the leading candidate because of the relationship the Lunders forged first with Gourley and previous college administrations, and later with current museum director Sharon Corwin and college president William D. Adams.
Early on, they focused on a few artists and art styles they particularly liked — Peter gravitated toward art from the American West, while Paula preferred paintings by Homer and other traditional American landscape painters. As they learned more about art, their tastes evolved to include contemporary art.
Corwin said the collection has significant depth in contemporary and late 19th- and early 20th-century American art. It includes a concentration of works by James McNeill Whistler, including two dozen paintings, watercolors and pastels, as well as a trove of etchings and lithographs by the artist.
The collection also has about 40 Chinese ritual and mortuary artworks from the Jin Dynasty.
Corwin has arranged about 280 pieces from the collection for this inaugural exhibition. It fills the two floors of the new wing dedicated to exhibition space, and flows into the older portion of the museum.
The show, formally titled “The Lunder Collection: A Gift of Art to Colby College,” will be on view for almost a year. Like everything else at the museum, visitors will be able to view the art for free.
The museum reopens Saturday with a private event, then to the public from noon to 5 p.m. the following day with Community Day, which will feature family activities such as art-making, live music, museum tours, food and ice cream.
“We spend most of our life here, and we love Maine,” said Paula Lunder. “Who better deserves the beauty and the knowledge that will be derived from this collection than our own Mainers?”
Although the Lunders gave their private collection to a private college, their philanthropy represents a very public gift, Corwin said.
“This is a gift to the college, to the community and to the state,” she said. “I hope residents of the state of Maine feel real ownership. This collection is now part of the identity of our state, which already has a real legacy in the visual arts. This collection adds to that legacy, and enhances it in significant ways.”
‘A SPECIAL ROLE … IN OUR SOCIETY’
Whether the Lunder Collection and the new wing change the arts landscape in Maine remains to be seen.
While Colby now has the state’s largest museum and has long enjoyed a reputation for having an outstanding museum, it has never drawn huge crowds. In 2010, the year before construction began, the museum drew 20,000 visitors. By comparison, the Portland Museum of Art drew 13,000 visitors in May alone.
Corwin expects attendance will spike with the new wing, however. “I hope that people will travel here. I hope this museum will become a destination for visitors,” she said.
Anne Collins Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick and president of the College Art Association, said college art museums play a different role in communities than private museums such as the Portland Museum of Art.
College museums rely less on attendance for their funding. The teaching mission of a college links directly to the operation of a college art museum, and a college museum guides its collecting principles around its academic mission, Goodyear said.
Whether attendance at Colby grows, the Lunder Collection and the Alfond-Lunder pavilion will enhance the campus, community and the state, Goodyear said.
“College museums play a vital role in educating the future citizens of a democratic nation,” she said. “They do have a special role to play in our society in that they are providing an opportunity for members of the community at large, but especially young people, to engage with world-class pieces of art and the challenges it poses. Great art does not sugarcoat the world.
“The Colby museum is rooted in a community-oriented ethos. There is a tradition at Colby of not only serving its own student community, but being outward-facing in terms of the larger public. This collection only enhances that tradition.”
Wes LaFountain, former director of the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art, grew up in Winslow across the river from Waterville. He said there was no question the Lunder gift will expose Colby to a much broader audience.
“It’s a collection that any museum in America, if not beyond, would love to have,” he said.
The public face of the museum changes dramatically with the new wing. Colby hired the Los Angeles-based firm Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects to design the pavilion. The college describes it as a “light-filled gateway” to the existing museum, and a “beacon” for Maine residents and visitors.
It was designed to reflect nearby campus architecture during the day and provide glimpses of art at night, when it will be lit from the inside out.
The mostly glass pavilion also serves as the new main entrance to the museum, and opens out onto an existing sculpture garden that features Richard Serra’s monumental “4-5-6,” which has been part of the sculpture garden for many years.
Inside is a high-ceilinged main lobby with slate floors and open space for art installations and gatherings. The pavilion provides four new galleries as well as classrooms, a conference room, studios and offices.
The Lunders said they loved the new building when they toured it as the collection was being installed. “I couldn’t offer a suggestion. I couldn’t offer a criticism. Perfect,” Peter Lunder said.
He especially loved the LeWitt wall drawing, which is visible from the outside looking in. “They’ll know there’s a museum there now. The LeWitt is drop-dead gorgeous,” he said.
“We think Mr. LeWitt would be pleased,” Paula Lunder added. “It was a nice building before. But now it’s an announcement.”
The Lunders hope people in Maine take advantage of the collection and visit the museum.
“We view our gift as a chance to move forward. We’re not losing anything. We’re sharing it,” Peter Lunder said. “Maine is blessed; we have a lot of great museums. And one of them just got better.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: