‘This is one of the most important collections of modern art in the country,” says Kristen Levesque, director of public relations for the Portland Museum of Art. She is almost matter-of-fact. “When it goes back to MoMA, it will be broken up and integrated back into their collection.”

She is talking about the Museum of Modern Art in New York, of course. As she gestured toward the gallery in the Portland museum and its newest installation Tuesday evening, one is given great pause.

We are surrounded by artistic greatness in perhaps its most emphatic form. Pablo Picasso, Paul Gaugin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Francis Bacon, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse they are all here.

This is “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism,” and members of the Director’s Circle, the museum’s highest category of membership, have come to enjoy a preview of this renowned exhibition before it opened to the public on Thursday.

“This is the creme de la creme,” said Margaret Burgess, curator of European art at the museum. “MoMA specifically refined the checklist down to these 61 works just for us. It is a huge privilege. We are the only venue in New England to show this collection.”

The excitement for this exhibition was palpable, both during the welcoming lecture on Picasso, featuring Bernardo Laniado-Romero, director of the Museu Picasso de Barcelona in Spain, and the opening reception that followed.

“We are so excited to see this exhibit,” said Emily Blaschke of Yarmouth, beaming with anticipation. “This is a first-class museum that you would expect to have in a big city,” added her husband, Ken Blaschke, vice president at HeadInvest in Portland.

“This is one of the first examples of the acquisition of the Homer Studio bearing fruit,” said Hans Underdahl, Portland Museum of Art board chairman, who attended with his wife, Rosemary, and daughter Hannah. “It’s also because of the relationship we have with Prouts Neck and the personal efforts of one of its leading residents, George Gillespie. The fact that Portland is enjoying this show is a direct result of that.”

When asked whether Portland indeed has him to thank for bringing such a rarefied collection of creative genius to our small city, Gillespie was charming, modest and game.

“Probably,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

Gillespie, who sits on the board of the William S. Paley Foundation and knew the media titan who started CBS, is a longtime summer resident of Prouts Neck and ardent supporter of the Portland Museum of Art.

“I had an idea that the folks here might like to show this collection,” Gillespie said. “This museum is not that minor, in my opinion, with wonderful architecture and an increasingly impressive art collection.”

Scott M. Black, private investor, philanthropist, art collector and museum trustee, also had a hand in securing this exhibit.

“To bring a collection of this magnitude to Portland is extraordinary,” said Black, who grew up in Maine and now lives in Boston. “The type of collection that Mr. Paley had would typically be found in major museums throughout the world.”

Black, who has amassed an impressive collection of his own and is familiar with loaning works of art to museums to share with the public, feels strongly about his ties to Maine.

“I grew up here. I went to Deering High School,” Black said. “It doesn’t hurt to give back to the community you grew up in.”

Indeed. And we are all the better for it.

For more information on “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism,” which runs through Sept. 8, visit www.portlandmuseum.org.

Margaret Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough. She can be contacted at:

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