Monday, October 15th, 2012

The Nobleman: Hugh Gourley, fabled curator, transformed Colby College Museum of Art into Maine showcase

Hugh J. Gourley III, 1931-2012

Richard Serra’s 4-5-6 (2000) in the courtyard of the Colby College Museum of Art
Richard Serra’s 4-5-6 (2000) in the courtyard of the Colby College Museum of Art

Hugh Gourley, director of the Colby College Museum of Art for the best part of four decades, died July 29 in Portland,Maine. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island where he received his degree in Art History from Brown University, after which he served as a sergeant in the US Army and was stationed in Eritrea, where he discovered that country’s architecture and design. After graduate work at Yale he was curator of decorative arts for seven years at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Toward the end of his RISD period Hugh was approached by James Carpenter, Chair of the Department of Art History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine who asked Hugh if he would consider becoming the director of the Colby College Museum. And Hugh said yes.

What followed were 36 years of dedication and service to art which led to the creation of the superb museum of today – 28,000 sq ft of exhibition space and more than 7000 works of art. The artists in the museum’s permanent collection are too many to mention but I will just add, Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Fairfield Porter, James McNeil Whistler, Lois Dodd, Neil Welliver, Bernard Langlais, Abby Shawn, Robert Indiana, Daphne Cummings, Dan Flavin, Chuck Close, Yvonne Jacquette, Philip Guston, Louise Nevelson, Kara Walker, Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keefe.

From a staff of 2, Hugh and his assistant, the path of the museum’ s rise was fixed. “Hugh loved artists,” according to Lois Dodd. When he eventually retired, Alex Katz simply said of him, “He is not replaceable,”

There is a sense when looking back that Hugh knew from the start what the museum would become.

Three collections had entered the museum before Hugh’s arrival. In the early 1950s Miss Adeline and Miss Caroline Wing gave important work by William Merritt Chase, Winslow Homer and others. Following came the Willard H. and Helen W. Cummings collection of Early American Art, and the Elerton Jette American Heritage Collection of 75 works of American Folk Art. But from 1966 the museum’s steady climb continued because of Hugh’s vision, and the close friendships forged in proximity to the art world in general and New York in particular.

One such, for instance, was between Hugh and the renowned Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. This relationship lasted throughout his time at Colby. The school was filled with powerhouse students and visiting, very highly regarded artists from all over the country. And Skowhegan had the reputation of being on top. When at school there in 1972 I remember seeing Hugh, Louise Nevelson and Bette Davis all on one weekend. Bonds with such people led Hugh’s horizons to expand and these relationships flourished.

With his natural grace and his quiet tone, Hugh was the kind of person who people allowed themselves to become close to. People watched him and sensed that they could trust him. They sensed that when they met him. Greg Williams, Assistant Director of Operations at the museum today, and close friend to Hugh, described his “tone of quality” and called him a “nobleman.”

Hugh was also a man of quiet power, with excellence of eye, taste and character. Daphne Cummings, another close friend, calls him a “remarkable gentleman. He encouraged so many outstanding artists. He was very sensitive to their work. And also under Hugh’s curatorship the Colby Museum has been best in the state of Maine and beyond in terms of contemporary art.” She identifies his particular strengths as his “great love of art and his generosity and loyalty both personally and professionally.”

In 1973 John Marin, Jr and Norma B Marin gave the museum 25 works by John Marin. In 1992 Paul Schupf established a wing for the work of Alex Katz, now 700 works in all. He also promised the museum more than 150 prints and drawings by Richard Serra. In 1999 the Lunder Wing for the exhibition of Colby’s renowned collection of American Art was created. And the Jere Abbott bequest established an exhibition endowment, enabling the purchase of major works of contemporary art.

Hugh Gourley with the author's Doberman Pinscher, Mookie.  Courtesy of Daphne Cummings
Hugh Gourley with the author’s Doberman Pinscher, Mookie. Courtesy of Daphne Cummings

Hugh’s collecting affected me, personally, in a very big way. One day I was walking down the corridor toward the museum and was stunned to see Richard Serra’s piece, 4-5-6 , through the window. I was completely unprepared. I had just gone all the way to see Serra in Bilbao and here he was, in Maine! Another day Hugh said to me in his quiet way, “I’d like to show you something” and he took me outside, across the lawn, to Sol LeWitt’s 7 Walls, one of the most beautiful works of sculpture I had ever seen. And with Hugh, it was always “tell me what you think.”

Painters Nancy and John Wisseman knew Hugh for many years.”He was an unusual combination of great sophistication and yet so supportive of Maine artists. He was always so welcoming. He had a unique vision, very modest, patient. So many people really liked him. He made one feel so important, everyone. He had very interesting shows and in the beginning there was not much in Maine then.”

In addition to the wider art world Hugh mentored young students at Colby. He was very sensitive to their work. Perhaps some of their paintings entered his private collection of work by friends.

My experiences with Hugh were beautiful. It felt good to be next to him, I felt he was a guide and protector. I felt he would be a good person to keep a secret. One of my fondest memories of Hugh was one day when he took me in to see the Alex Katz wing and he said he wanted to show me the top of one of the paintings and said how much he liked it. “Have a look, let me know what you think.”

I had a show at the museum in 2000, after Hugh had come to see an exhibition of mine at Maine Coast Artists in Rockport, Maine. When the time came I asked him where in the museum would he like my paintings to go and he said, “Wherever you want,” but he had a certain idea where they should be and it was just right. When it was time for my opening trays of chocolate-covered strawberries were floating around but there was not a big crowd. Hugh said to me later, “There were not a lot of people but those who came were very important.”

Hugh Gourley: small in stature, handsome, reserved; an occasional smile; thinking, quietly looking, filled with art. Art had been his choice for life.

Thank you to Daphne Cummings for her valuable help in the writing of this tribute.