Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, recalls a time when Peter and Paula Lunder began to wonder about the ultimate purpose of their growing collection of American art. Prices were skyrocketing, and the Lunders were questioning whether this was where they should be devoting their resources.
“When they settled on the idea of donating everything to the Colby museum, at that point it was suddenly okay,” Broun said. “They went from collecting good but not great works, when they thought it was just for their own purpose, to collecting the best of the best of the best when they knew it was all going to Colby.”
The destination for the Lunders’ collection was made official in 2007, but the couple had settled on Colby years before. And that decision led the Lunders to change their purpose from acquiring art that would hang in their homes to art that would benefit Colby students, faculty, and the state of Maine.
The result? One of the largest and most important collections of the works of James McNeill Whistler in the world. Addition of contemporary sculpture to a collection that already included some of the most renowned works of the 19th century. The most important works of specific artists, including Winslow Homer, John LaFarge, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Joseph Mozier, among many others, curators say.
“They not only found great paintings and examples of the artists’ work but also works that stand for the bigger moments in the overall story of the country,” Broun said. “It’s a spectacular broad view of all the best artists in America and what they tell us about how we became the country we are today.”
Choosing the signposts of that story is a challenging task. The Lunders cultivated an enormous network of conservators, curators, scholars, and other advisors across the country. Because of their reputation as discerning collectors with considerable resources, the Lunders are sought out by dealers and art auction houses and are constantly being presented with opportunities to buy important works. “They probably see ninety percent of everything that’s on the American art market,” Broun said. “It’s kind of an honor to get picked to be in the Lunder Collection.”
And while there are art buyers who make decisions solely on recommendations from experts, the Lunders are known as discerning and educated collectors. “I think they both have a very skilled eye,” said Sharon Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. “They are both extremely knowledgeable.”
And they are devoted to Colby and the state of Maine.
Broun, who has known the Lunders for years, describes them as “modest people who aren’t seeking any benefits for themselves.” Rather, she said, everything they do is intended to benefit Colby and the state.
In that way, the Lunder Collection and the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion are gifts made not just to Colby but to the state as a whole.
“For them to be able to give it to a place like Colby, where it would have such an impact on the teaching that happens here but also be a resource for the rest of the state—they win on both fronts,” Corwin said.
The quality of the collection, the spaces, the new facility elevate the Colby museum to the forefront of college art museums in the country, she said. That is especially remarkable because the Colby Museum of Art is only 54 years old. It has grown thanks to a host of dedicated supporters, she said.
“[The museum] has a really deep history of visionaries and generosity,” Corwin said, “and Peter and Paula are very much part of that.”