In the end a man’s life is often measured by the difference he made. About Hugh it is enough to say that Colby College, its museum and Maine cannot be imagined without his life’s work, nor could the lives of Hugh’s friends who benefited from his unique kindness, generosity, integrity, and intelligence.
Early in 1985 a European couple who summered in Maine suggested to me that a large Alex Katz exhibition be held at both Colby and Bowdoin. They said their friend Hugh Gourley would be the best contact.
We spoke often that summer before the show. I soon discovered that Hugh was remarkably easy to work with at every level. His understanding of art and mounting exhibitions was impeccable, and he was a master of museum management.
This began 15 years of weekly and sometimes daily brief telephone conversations. Hugh rarely called, but he was almost always available. Starting with the first visit that summer we spent hundreds of hours in his quiet office talking about art, current and past.
The director’s office was always my first and last stop when I visited Mayflower Hill. In those early years this was a very quiet place with almost no visitors. Hugh’s desk was immaculate, with a fine Calder, a phone that never rang, and a PC that was never turned on.
The table near the couch was piled high with books and magazines, which Hugh thought would interest me. The only odd feature were hundreds of unread newspapers stacked along each wall. Finally, Board Chair Ridge Bullock [H. Ridgeley Bullock ’55] rushed through the office on the way to see an exhibition and blurted “OMG,” which finally convinced Hugh to throw away the papers.
Hugh and I were able to talk uninterrupted for hours about art, artists, and future exhibitions. Hugh was not a traditional scholar. He was the classic 19th-century connoisseur with a perfect eye who understood art of all periods. Despite his conservative nature Hugh was totally open to the most radical new art propositions and trends. This is what separated him from almost anyone else in the art world. Like Bobby Rosenblum and Adam Weinberg, Hugh had an encyclopedic knowledge that permitted rapid assimilation of new and different art. Hugh rarely imposed his views. He preferred to react to those of others. One of my fondest memories was spending an afternoon in New York City with him visiting dozens of galleries. He asked me what would be best for the museum and I suggested a Sol LeWitt monotype, which he immediately acquired.
Hugh was always perfectly dressed. I prefer hoodies and sneakers so I bought him an ace Colby sweatshirt, which he gamely wore once and never again. We did not always agree but we never argued. We often talked about a long-term vision for the Colby museum.
Hugh never asked for anything. He offered generosity, friendship, integrity, and intelligence. His reticence made it difficult at times to get his point of view, but this is a minimal issue compared with his unique qualities.
It has been said that the museum is the jewel in the Colby crown. This is the enduring legacy of Hugh Gourley’s life’s work.