When Art Meets Math
Lauren Lessing was driving north to Maine in June to begin her job as the first Mirken Curator of Education at the Colby College Museum of Art when her cell phone rang. It was her mom.
“She said, ‘Your museum was in the New York Times.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not my museum anymore.’ I thought she was talking about the Nelson-Atkins Museum [where Lessing worked previously in Kansas City]. She said, ‘No, your new museum.’ And then she started reading it to me. I really couldn’t believe it.”
The Times story was about the Lunders’ gift of American art. When Lessing arrived at Colby, she saw the full list of more than 500 works coming to her “new museum.”
“I was stunned,” she said. “Page after page of these fantastic artworks. I almost started to cry.”
There was the George Inness painting, Spirit of Autumn, which Lessing had as her screensaver on her computer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Five examples of 19th-century American “Ideal” sculpture, on which Lessing wrote her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. She had seen one work, Joseph Mozier’s Undine, only in photographs. “It was really wonderful to come here and see the sculpture itself,” she said.
Lessing’s love of art is apparent and, if her first weeks on the job are any indication, it will prove contagious. Drawing on her experience at Nelson-Atkins and at the Art Institute of Chicago, she had plans for programs for local schools, had connected with a local arts organization, and had already met with several Colby faculty members—from philosophy, environmental studies, and other fields—including some whose disciplines would seem an unlikely match with an art museum.
Since assuming her position, which was endowed by Alan Mirken ’51, a member of the museum board of governors, Lessing had spoken with Whipple-Coddington Professor of Geology Robert Gastaldo, whose research centers on South Africa. The conversation had Lessing mulling a course on African art and, perhaps, exploration of the landscape as reflected in art of the 20th century.
“I really feel that the art museum can be worked into any class that’s taught here,” Lessing said.
“I’m thinking about math,” she said. “We have a wonderful tapestry hanging in the galleries now, by Chuck Close.” The work, a self-portrait, began as a daguerreotype, was turned
into a digital file, and then sent to Belgian weavers who used the electronic image to make the tapestry. “I think that process would be interesting to the Math Department, computer science,”
Her new educational mission, she said, “is big. I want to do a lot of things.”
—Gerry Boyle ’78
Many of the pieces in the collection are on exhibit already, and many more will be shown in 2009 when the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, Corwin said.
Schupf has known the Lunders since the 1980s, when he began getting involved with Colby affairs. They met at an art opening and with time became close friends, Schupf said. “I never would have gotten so involved with the museum if not for the Lunders. You couldn’t find two more charitable and thoughtful people than the Lunders, in every aspect.”
He described the Lunders as passionate collectors who care deeply about Colby and Maine.
“We talk incessantly, constantly. Early on in this process, they said very clearly that they wanted the Colby College Museum of Art to be to Maine what the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is to Massachusetts. They said it over and over again.”
The Clark, as it is popularly known, is in Williamstown, Mass., and is home to the art collection of Sterling and Francine Clark. The Clarks collected Impressionist and Old Master works. They considered bequeathing their collection to major museums, but instead decided to build their own in the Berkshires, close to Williams College, in the early 1950s. It has since attracted numerous other
“It’s absolutely clear that Colby is one of the top college museums in the country, and it’s going to get one heck of a lot better over the next five to ten years. This is not the end,” he said. “We have a lot more to do here.”