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By Edgar Allen Beem
One of the clearest measures of the phenomenal growth of the Colby College Museum of Art under the guidance of Hugh J. Gourley III is the fact that everything beyond the book-lined wall of Gourley's small office was created on his watch. When Gourley came to Mayflower Hill in 1966 to become its director, the Colby museum consisted of just two rooms in the Bixler Art and Music Center. Since then the museum has grown by leaps and bounds, adding the Jetté Galleries in 1973, the Davis Gallery in 1991, the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Art of Alex Katz in 1996 and the Lunder Wing to house the permanent collection in 1999.
The collection has nearly doubled in size to more than 4,000 objects since 1966. The growing museum became a magnet for gifts of important art such as the John Marin and Alex Katz collections, and in 1982 the establishment of the Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund gave Gourley a purchasing power that is the envy of his peers. Focusing on the museum's strengths in American and contemporary art, Gourley bought daringly and well. The Sol LeWitt wall drawing in the museum lobby and the Richard Serra minimalist sculpture in the museum's courtyard speak to an aesthetic sophistication rare among college museums.
The Colby museum has the largest exhibition space of any art museum in Maine, and its facilities, collections and exhibitions have made it one of the finest small college art museums in the country. Now, after 36 years of devotion to Colby and the Colby College Museum of Art, Hugh Gourley, 70, has announced his retirement, effective June 30.
"I got to a stage where I felt I had done what I could do," Gourley said. "The facilities are all in place and that's very satisfying, and the collection is headed in a direction I feel good about, with an emphasis on contemporary art. It's all together now and can go on."
A gracious, self-effacing man, Gourley characteristically deflects all credit for his own accomplishments to others. "I've had wonderful people to work with. It's all been very satisfying," he said. "People have developed a real enthusiasm for helping the College build the museum. Both the museum and the collection have really grown through the loyalty and generosity of a fairly small number of people, but people who feel very strongly about the museum."
As word of his impending retirement spreads, praise for Gourley's extraordinary record of achievement is everywhere.
"The excellence of the museum," said President William D. "Bro" Adams, "is due primarily to Hugh and his extraordinary tenure. Virtually everything it has become it has become because of him. He's done an exceptional job driving the acquisitions program, he's done an exceptional job rallying to its cause important and helpful people, and he's built one of the best college museums anywhere."
"Hugh is sort of like a Pied Piper," said Gabriella De Ferrari, a member of the museum's board of governors, one of its key supporters and former curator of the Busch Reisinger Museum at Harvard. "People love to work with Hugh, because he's such a gentle, educated man. And artists adore him, because he respects them."
Alex Katz, America's foremost figurative artist and the artist most closely associated with the Colby museum, said, "Hugh has a very nice relationship with the artists living there. He's just a very nice person and that's unusual. He's very nice to all people."
A summer resident of Maine, Katz sees the Colby museum as an outstanding cultural asset not only for the College but for the state as well. "He did a great job for the state," Katz said. "The museum is the premier place in the state. He took it from nothing and look what he did."
Artist and museum board member Daphne Cummings, whose father, Willard Cummings, was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the museum, has known Gourley ever since he came to Colby. "The museum has become all that it is through Hugh's caring and commitment to quality, to friends, and to the love of art," Cummings said.
Paula Lunder, a trustee of the College who, with her husband, Peter '56, made the challenge grant that created the Lunder Wing, found herself almost at a loss for words when it came to characterizing Gourley's contribution. "I just can't express what he has created," Lunder said. "It is amazing. We're in a little corner of the world here in Maine, but Hugh's influence is felt in a much broader art world."
And Gourley has influenced generations of Colby students.
W. Mark Brady '78, a museum board member and a noted dealer in Old Master drawings, credits Gourley with giving him his introduction to the world of fine art. As a student, Brady curated his first drawing show under Gourley's careful eye. "The thing about Hugh," Brady said, "is that in his extremely calm and cool way, he exerts a powerful influence on people who truly love art. He's one of the last of the civilized directors."
And his contribution will be appreciated by art lovers for generations to come, said former President William R. Cotter: "Thousands and thousands of people have Hugh to thank for the facility, the quality of the collection, the quality of the exhibitions and the way he mounted them."
Gourley will be thanked for his years of service to Colby at a gala luncheon in July, after which he seems intent on slipping away as-characteristically-inconspicuously as possible. Gourley said he tentatively plans to return to Providence, R.I., where he was born in 1931, where he graduated from Brown University in 1953 and where he served as a curator at the Rhode Island School of Design museum for seven years before coming to Colby.
For many who have witnessed its spectacular ascendancy, it is impossible to imagine the Colby College Museum of Art without Hugh Gourley at its helm, or, to be more exact, at its front door, the casually elegant gentleman in the tasteful sweaters welcoming visitors to the museum he created.
"He is not replaceable," said Alex Katz simply.
"That museum," said Gabriella De Ferrari, "is Hugh."
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