The Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion opened earlier this month at the Colby College Museum of Art, making it the largest museum in Maine. It's not the Museum's size that gives it national significance: with 38,000 square feet of exhibition space, it's small by museum standards; The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City occupies two million square feet of space. The Colby Museum's significance comes from both the outsized role that Maine has played in the history of American art and the fact that since the 1950s the Museum has become the repository of choice for renowned and extraordinarily generous artists and collectors.
One can hardly think of such iconic American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Alex Katz, among so many others, without conjuring up images of Maine. Even Louise Nevelson's black-or-white, seemingly abstract, wooden constructions were inspired by and typically constructed of objects found along the Maine coast. All of those artists and many others -- related or not to Maine -- are represented in the Colby collection, which is primarily American in focus. What is even more remarkable is that the Museum -- located inland in Waterville -- is now home to several collections that are truly extraordinary in their scale.
The Colby Museum contains, for instance, the largest collection of works by John Marin in any academic museum in the world, as well as nearly 800 works by Alex Katz, more than 150 prints and drawings by Richard Serra and most recently more than 500 works of art (estimated in value at $100 million) collected by Peter and Paula Lunder. The Lunders' collection includes more than 200 prints by James McNeill Whistler and necessitated the new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion.
To design the Pavilion, Colby College turned to Los Angeles-based architect Frederick Fisher, whose firm Frederick Fisher and Partners had designed the previous expansion of the Colby Museum. That earlier expansion had stayed within the design vernacular of the college -- a quintessentially American campus of neo-Georgian red-brick buildings with sloping roofs and white columns. Its shape and red-brick façade are entirely consistent with that language, if somewhat more modern in their detailing.
The new Pavilion abandons that vernacular entirely but in its scaling remains completely compatible, announcing boldly that something new has arrived while becoming in no way obtrusive. The Pavilion is a gray-glass trapezoid, whose long Southern side parallels the long sides of the campus's main quadrangle, which lies one street away. Its glass veneer is muted by the gray, making it recede while reflecting the neo-Georgian facades from which it is escaping.
In doing so, it brings to mind Frederick Fisher's design for Sherrerd Hall at Princeton University -- a more highly articulated glass rectangle amidst primarily stone and brick facades, which too recedes, absorbing its surroundings in muted reflections rather than upstaging them. The two buildings are also similar in that both reveal major works of art contained just inside the glass and positioned so that they are easily visible to those outside. At Princeton, it's a three-story, metal-screen "chandelier" by artist Jim Isermann. At Colby, it's a three-story multi-colored mural by Sol LeWitt that fills the entire Eastern façade of the Museum to stunning effect: welcoming visitors, engaging them before they even enter the building and enticing them to come inside. Impressively, the Museum charges no admission fee, as if to offer the art back to the state from which so much wonderful art has emerged.
In a very different way, there's a parallel, too, between Frederick Fisher's latest addition to the Colby Museum and his 1997 expansion of what is now MoMA PS1, the exhibition space for contemporary art in Queens, New York, now part of The Museum of Modern Art. While the two structures couldn't be more different in their vocabulary -- the New York addition is a stark, two-story, concrete enclosure whose art installations often burst upward from an interior courtyard, emerging above the building's façade -- they are similar in three fundamental ways: both are additions to existing historical structures (in New York a red-brick, Victorian, school building, hence the PS1); both break from the existing vernacular in dramatic ways; and, both announce that something contemporary has taken place that should be explored.
The selection of Frederick Fisher by Colby College was an inspired one, and he has produced a museum expansion that moves Colby into the upper ranks of college museums. It provides a dynamic and recognizable face to the Museum, while remaining respectful of its historical surroundings. It offers a new entrance way and lobby area to orient visitors. It adds to and knits together an impressive array of interwoven spaces -- from intimate galleries for small works to almost warehouse-like expanses for some of Alex Katz's largest paintings. The spaces, which reveal surprises around each corner, do not draw attention to themselves but serve the art instead.
Outside, Frederick Fisher's design has subtly altered the very nature of the Colby College campus, bringing it comfortably into the 21st century and demonstrating that the contemporary and the historical can seamlessly connect. Above the Museum entrance, across the Western façade, these words are prominently inscribed: "The museum is a school; the artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections." Below the inscription one can see the neo-Georgian building next door reflected on the gray-glass façade -- the connection clearly made.
The author is Chief Operating Officer of the New York City-based public relations firm Goodman Media International.