July 29, 2012

Bob Keyes: Art-world legend leaves big legacy

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The first time I met Hugh Gourley, I was quaking in my shoes.

click image to enlarge

Hugh Gourley, as director for 36 years, built the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville into one of the best small-college museums in the nation.

Courtesy photo

It was 10 years ago this summer, and I had just begun my duties as arts reporter for this newspaper. I knew little about Gourley, except that he was retiring as director of the Colby College Museum of Art after 36 years of service.

I was nervous because I had done enough research to know that Gourley was a legend, a major figure in the world of art in Maine -- and elsewhere.

I had an appointment with him to talk about a Sol LeWitt sculpture being installed on the front lawn of the museum, and I feared my lack of knowledge and familiarity with LeWitt -- and with Gourley himself -- might turn him off.

Turns out, my nervousness was misplaced. Gourley could not have been more kind or patient. He embodied sweetness in a man, and he suffered my foolish questions with remarkable understanding.

Gourley, 81, died in the early-morning hours Wednesday at Maine Medical Center. After retiring from Colby, he spent a few years in Manhattan, but came home to Maine, a place he dearly loved.

In the days after his death, my e-mail and Facebook page were filled with tributes.

"A good man. A gentle man," one person wrote.

"A great presence," wrote another.

"An incredibly kind and supportive person. A gentleman in every sense of the word," said a third.

Gourley will be remembered for many things, but his lasting legacy will be the Colby College Museum of Art. He single-handedly built that museum into one of the finest small-college museums in the nation. It is the largest museum in Maine, and an anchor arts destination.

Gourley began his duties there in 1966, when the museum amounted to a room or two in the Bixler arts center. He forged ahead, began building the collection, and envisioned a much larger building that has since been expanded a time or two and is being expanded yet again.

He built lasting relationships with artists and donors, whose generosity and gifts have distinguished the Colby collection. He understood Maine's place in the larger world of American art, and created a museum that reflected Maine's rich visual arts tradition.

The museum's current director, Sharon Corwin, said Colby will plan a memorial for Gourley after classes resume in the fall.

Corwin arrived at Colby in 2003, hired by Gourley's successor to be the museum's curator. She became director in 2006, and while she never worked directly for Gourley, the two became close.

"He had such a generosity of spirit," Corwin said. "When I first got here, he spent four full days with me walking through the galleries and talking about the history of this museum and the collection, which he built.

"He cared so much about the mus- eum. I think the people who surrounded the Colby museum -- its friends and benefactors -- really responded to Hugh and his spirit and vision, and his ability to articulate his idea of what the Colby museum could be. They wanted to be a part of that."

Corwin thinks Gourley's greatest personal attribute was his understated grace. He wasn't showy or flashy. He won people over with his quiet, caring persona. People liked him and trusted him, and bought into his vision and supported his plan. He was a team builder, and never looked down or judged.

It's not by chance that Colby has become the museum it is, Corwin said. "His legacy continues to be felt in everything that is in the museum and everything we do."

In retirement, Gourley served on the museum's board of governors, and helped guide decisions about acquisitions. He wasn't directly involved in planning the new wing that will open next summer, but his relationship with the designer, Frederick Fisher, influenced the outcome of the plan, Corwin said.

"He is a legend, and such an important figure in the art world in Maine and beyond," she said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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