Hugh J. Gourley, III (1931-2012)

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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 by Brian Speer/Colby Communications

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.

Alex Katz wing at Colby

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.

Richard Serra's 4-5-6

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.


  • People familiar with the circumstances of Hugh’s retirement know exactly what I mean.

  • Ed, your articles are usually pretty solid, and I’ve enjoyed them since the Maine Times days, but I can’t imagine where you came up with the line “…at least not under the current college administration that never really seemed to appreciate what Gourley had created at Colby.”…

    As a Colby alum, and friend and supporter of the art museum for 30 years, it sure seems to me that both Presidents Cotter and Adams supported the museum and the directors to the fullest.

    Donors and collectors won’t give if they don’t feel comfortable with the institution or the museum….and look at what has come since Adams became president in 2000!

    A collection of over 150 works on paper by Richard Serra — the largest outside of MoMA!

    The Alex Katz Foundation donating hundreds of works over the past five years or so — mostly contemporary, but also historical, such as six Marsden Hartleys.

    New endowed positions in education, outreach,curatorial fellowships and the like, including more designated acquisition funds.

    And, of course, the magnificent Lunder Collection, encompassing the history of American art, including the extensive James McNeill Whistler collection of over 250 etchings. The new Alfond-Lunder pavilion is to hold the collection, and it is proper to have their names on the new pavilion.

    The college just received an important grant from the Mellon Foundation to help integrate the whole aspect of the visual arts and humanities into the curriculum.

    That doesn’t happen without the full support of the president and the trustees (in addition to the museum’s board of governors).

    As to naming the museum the Gourley museum, (or the pavilion)…..in a word, no.

    The nice (and to me, important) thing about the Colby Museum is that it *is* the Colby Museum. No one donor is recognized. Each of the past five decades of its history had collectors and donors worthy of having the museum of the time named after them. Good for Colby for not doing that (same with Bowdoin, Smith, Williams and Yale!)

    And i really think Hugh would be embarrassed, if not mortified, with the thought that the museum would be named for him. Hugh was always the first to place the success of the museum on others — the Jettes, the Cummings, Paul Schupf, Alex Katz, Jere Abbott, Miss Muzzy, the Lunders, Ed Turner, and more.

    Perhaps an endowment fund can be created by his legions of friends to supplement existing acquisition and exhibition funds. Perhaps collectors will donate works in his honor and memory. Each would be welcome and appreciated.

    Hugh will be pleased forever knowing that the Lunder Collection will be on view in a striking glass pavilion next year — and that future generations of students and visitors will be able to see one of the most important and exciting collections of American art (and arts from around the world) in a museum that was barely a thought 55 years ago, and one that began as little more than two small rooms, and now houses one of the largest exhibition spaces north of Boston.

    That’s Hugh Gourley.


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