Hugh J. Gourley, III, director of the Colby College Museum of Art from 1966 until 2002, passed away in Portland, Maine, on July 25 at the age of 81. There is no way to overstate the impact Hugh Gourley had on the Colby museum, Colby College itself, and the Maine art scene. There is no way short of renaming the museum for him that the college can ever pay him back for creating one of the pockets of excellence at the Waterville college and putting Colby on the art world map.
The Gourley Museum of Art at Colby College? I like the sound of it, but it’s not likely to happen, at least not under the current college administration that never really seemed to appreciate what Gourley had created at Colby.
Hugh Gourley was a good man, a gentle man, a quiet man, a sweet man. He had the best eye for art and hung exhibitions more beautifully than anyone I have ever met. Modest to the extreme, he gave all credit for the phenomenal growth of the Colby College Museum of Art to its many benefactors, but collectors, donors, artists and philanthropists were generous with the museum because they knew that Hugh would appreciate their art and make good use of their money.
A Providence native who graduated from Brown in 1953, Hugh came to Colby in 1966 after serving seven years as curator at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. When he arrived on the Mayflower Hill campus, the Colby museum was really just a two-room gallery in the Bixler Art & Music Center. When I first met Hugh in the late 1970s, he had a small office in the connecting corridor between the Bixler building and the new Jette Galleries that were opened in 1973. For many years, the museum only had two employees, Hugh and an assistant. But what Colby did not provide in resources, it did allow in creative freedom.
As it grew under Gourley from a gallery into one of the finest college art museums in the country, the Colby College Museum of Art enjoyed a rare degree of autonomy. It was run by a board of trustees and had fundraising freedom that few museums connected to colleges have. Colby left the museum alone and it flourished under Hugh Gourley’s thoughtful nurture.
The Davis Gallery was added 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 nearly doubled in size to more than 4,000 objects. Gourley developed strong bonds with the founding artists of the Skowhegan School of Art & Sculpture, with the family of the great Modernist painter John Marin, with figurative artist Alex Katz, and with people like Maine native Jere Abbott, the first assistant director of the Museum of Modern Art and the long-time director of the Smith College Museum of Art. When he died in 1982, Abbott left Colby an art acquisition fund from which Gourley was able to make important purchases such as the landmark sculpture by Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra that graces the museum entrance plaza.
The Colby museum continues to grow like topsy with a new, 26,000 square foot glass addition set to open in 2013. The new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion is made possible by a lead gift from the Alfond and Lunder families that founded the Dexter Shoe Company. If the Gourley Museum of Art at Colby doesn’t come about, naming the new wing the Gourley Pavilion would begin to honor what Hugh J. Gourley III created at Colby.
A memorial service is being planned at Colby in October.