Remembering Hugh Gourley

 

By Gabriella De Ferrari, L.H.D. '08, and Bree Jeppson '93
 

It was our summer to visit colleges, and as we walked around the beautiful Colby campus we arrived at the museum. Standing at the door was Hugh Gourley. He was wearing his characteristic impeccably pressed kakis and a colorful tailored shirt. A slight, very proper man, Hugh appeared large as he stood at the door of his museum.

This was Hugh’s kingdom, a place he built with dedication, determination, and creativity. Slowly he guided us through the galleries. Hugh’s love of art was not communicated by lengthy monologues, but by a gentle silence interrupted by morsels of profound information. In his quiet way he told us the history of the museum and the aesthetic reasons why he had placed one work next to the other. Art here did not stand in isolation but in a dialogue that spanned the centuries and created a conversation between different aesthetic movements.

HughBy the end of the tour, Bree had decided that this was the place she wanted to go to college.

As he did for so many students, Hugh provided Bree with a very special and profound education, not only in art, but in the ways museums function, exhibitions are formed, collections are created, and collaborations are developed with other museums. Students found sanctuary and stimulation at the museum and Hugh provided a place where they could go, usually unannounced but always welcomed. As he did with us on our first tour of the museum, Hugh offered students the opportunity to see and experience differently. The museum truly was a magical place. 

We both watched Hugh as he realized his dreams and turned the museum into the jewel of Colby College and one of the great American cultural institutions. When Hugh first became director of the Colby Museum it was just a small college museum without a particular direction or curatorial vision. He soon began growing the collection in a systematic and careful way. Hugh had ambitious plans, and he lived to see them realized.  

The list of Hugh’s accomplishments is long and impressive. When he had the opportunity to build the Lunder Wing, Hugh searched for the best architect for the project. He wanted to work with someone who could design a building that would blend into the campus, adapt the vernacular architecture of Maine, but most importantly be sensitive to the art it housed. Fred Fischer, Paula D.F.A. ’98 and Peter Lunder ’56, D.F.A. ’98, and Hugh produced that building. 

The same was absolutely true of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz. Hugh and Alex worked in collaboration with Max Gordon and created a space that not only responded to Alex’s work, but provided the perfect showcase. 

In addition to building an exciting and appropriate physical space for the museum, Hugh remained focused on the art it housed. He identified a need for contemporary art in the collection and, with a strong and supportive board, he aggressively searched for and added not only sole, extraordinary works of art, but entire archives such as the Terry Winters print archive, a magnificent tool for research. In an unusual move for a college museum, Hugh also identified the importance of acquiring public art. Hugh commissioned two bold and controversial pieces. The Richard Serra piece “4-5-6” is a perfect prelude to the museum. A site-specific piece that stands at the entrance, it alerts the visitor to the depth and range of the collection within the museum walls. 

In our opinion, one of Hugh’s boldest accomplishments during his tenure was the commissioning of Sol Lewitt’s Seven Walls. This was a brave move that created a heated but healthy debate about the role of public art. Now, Seven Walls stands as a symbol of a college that is open to dialogue, has an open mind, and encourages creative and forward thinking.  

In New York Hugh became a veritable encyclopedia of ongoing exhibitions and art happenings. He experienced the art community in New York much as his adoring students had experienced the art at Colby—with passion and awe. His favorite place of discovery was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He visited almost daily, taking in one wing at a time. He slowly, methodically, and with an eager eye studied the collection. His elegant figure was seen at openings and lectures. 

Hugh would often call and ask, “Have you seen the new Fred Wilson show (or whoever was recently up and opened)? Would you care to join me?” And off we would go on a wonderful afternoon adventure with Hugh. It was always a delight to experience a new show through Hugh’s unique, enthusiastic, and informed viewpoint. Hugh’s love of art truly knew no limits.

When his health began to fail, he retired to what he knew best: the comfort of Maine, his museum, and his very many friends. He lived surrounded by his art books and visitors. We talked to Hugh often. He was always eager to hear of New York goings on, and we were always curious to hear what he was learning through books and friends and to share his thoughtfulness. The many of us who had the luck to be his friend also had the privilege to engage in his conversation and gain his gentle, thoughtful, and informed advice.  

We like to think of Hugh as a strong tree that grows in the Maine forest, like one would find in an Alex Katz landscape. Under his shade grew many friendships and mentorships and a very particular and vital museum. He shall be remembered as such.

 
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