Colby Art Museum Receives $100 Million Gift


The Colby College Museum of Art received a $100 million gift of around 1,150 works by over 150 artists, including Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keefe and Rembrandt. The gift also provides for the establishment of the Lunder Institute for American Art, which will serve largely as a research center. The art museum at Colby already stood out among those of the NESCACs, but it is now set to become a world-class museum.

“As is true at most college museums, large gifts are more normally in the $1 million to $2 million range, and these occur only sporadically,” said director of the Middlebury art museum Richard Saunders. “This gift to Colby is quite amazing. Rarely do small college museums receive gifts of this magnitude.”

However, this massive gift is not an isolated occurrence for the Colby art museum. In 2007, the Lunders gave 500 works to the museum also valued at 100 million dollars, and in 2013, the museum opened the 15 million dollar Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion to showcase the newly acquired works. The museum as it stands today already has five wings.

“Amongst the NESCAC schools there is an enormous range in museums,” Saunders said.

A contributing factor to this discrepancy is age, since older museums have had more time to actively grow their collections. The Bowdoin art museum, for example, was established officially in 1894. Colby’s museum was established in 1959. Middlebury’s first art gallery was housed in Johnson in 1968, but the current museum was only established in 1992.

“Given that Middlebury’s museum is relatively young, our museum does not have the depth of collections that some of our peers have, but we have made remarkable headway in building outstanding teaching collections of photography (both historical and contemporary), Asian Art, Antiquities (Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek and Roman),” said Pieter Broucke, director of the arts.

Another vitally important factor is donations.

“Gifts to Middlebury’s museum are important, but they tend to be anecdotal rather than the result of a proactive process at the institutional level,” Broucke said.

The cultivation of donors and gifts is a vital part of the functioning of self-sustaining museums, and large institutions have an entire department dedicated to this task. As is typical of larger museums, Colby has a “director of museum development.” Middlebury does not.

“The gift to Colby, the result of a proactive cultivation of and targeted outreach to alumni and donors, will only speed up the transformative nature of its museum. The quality of the gift is extraordinary in both size and quality: Van Gogh, Rembrandt …. That, in turn, will make it even more attractive for prospective donors to give,” Broucke said.

The Middlebury art museum, housed in a corner of the ground floor of the Mahaney Center for the Arts, is largely hidden from public view.

“It has long outgrown the spaces,” Broucke said. “We also really need more space for developing our collections and operation into new directions, say African and South-American art, in line with our changing student body and our identity as a global institution.”

In regard to cultivating donorship, “The thinking is a bit like ‘if you build it they will come,’” Broucke said.

However, Colby’s museum is not only notably for its collection and size. The recent gift’s provision for the Lunder Institute for American Art also has the potential to drastically increase the value of the institution. It will create residency programs for graduate students, artists, scholars and curators to research American art, making it the only institution of its type among the NESCACs.

However, this dramatic increase to Colby’s collection and research potential can also have a positive impact on Middlebury. NESCAMA (New England Small College Art Museum Association) — started by Middlebury, Colby, Bowdoin, Smith and Skidmore — now includes around twenty college museums which loan artworks to one another. NESCAMA has also created a consortium to make joint purchases. A few years ago, Middlebury, Colby, Bowdoin, Skidmore and Mount Holyoke jointly purchased a video work which will be shown at Middlebury’s museum next fall. Middlebury has also made loans to Colby.

“I am sure [Colby] will welcome loan requests from any number of college Museums in the future. So, this recent gift to Colby is good news for all of us,” Saunders said.