Colby College perches on Mayflower Hill at the western edge of Waterville, a tired postindustrial city in central Maine. Brick classrooms and dorms, mostly nostalgic, neo-Georgian architecture, are ranged around curving roads. Relatively new, the campus still feels like a work in progress. Colby is the northernmost school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, a kind of scaled-down Ivy League. In contrast to Waterville, it is booming. It is increasingly selective but remains resolutely unpretentious, its mascot a white mule. In January the college can feel as isolated as the Arctic. It is an unlikely place to find an important museum, and few people know that Colby has one.
One cold afternoon in May, glad I'd brought a down vest, I walked past ground crews raking seed into a swath of lawn surrounding a new building. A cube, five stories tall, the structure is sheathed in squares of dark glass: the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, a 26,000-square-foot addition to the Colby College Museum of Art, designed by the Los Angeles firm Frederick Fisher and Partners. A combination of galleries, storage space, offices, classrooms, and studios, the pavilion opens in July with an exhibition of works from the Lunder collection, which was given to Colby in 2007 by Paula and Peter Lunder; he is a 1956 graduate of the college.
The Lunder collection comprises 500 works of art, including major paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and James McNeill Whistler as well as an astonishing collection of Whistler's etchings, watercolors, and pastels, together valued at more than $100 million. The pavilion, donated by the Lunders and their cousins the Alfond family, makes the museum the largest in Maine; the Lunders' gift combined with the museum's already superb collection of American and contemporary art turns Colby into arguably one of the finest college museums in the country.
Three blocks of COR-TEN steel, a sculpture by Richard Serra, are deployed on the terrace at the museum's entrance. The red-brown glass sheathing echoes the patina of the steel. The sleek pavilion merges seamlessly with the existing museum and the scale of the campus. Its glass does not flash. It is not arrogant; it gleams with confidence--and with decorum, rare in our age of assertive museum architecture. It seems a piece of sculpture itself, Serra's brutal masses magnified and hollowed out and rendered translucent.
Visible through the glass, an enormous striped drawing by Sol LeWitt fills one interior wall the height and width of the facade. As you approach the museum, those two signal statements of American minimalism--undulating bands of red, yellow, and blue, and a steel Stonehenge--announce its ambition. Turn in the other direction, and you see the view from Colby's hill: east over the Kennebec River to the ridges that parallel the coastline about 50 miles away and north to Sugarloaf and Katahdin, the peaks of the Appalachians. That view is familiar, too. We've seen it often hanging on museum walls. Its expanse and sense of remoteness cannot have changed much since 1813, when Colby was chartered.
IN THE FIRST PART of the 19th century, Fitz Henry Lane, Frederic Church, and Thomas Cole sailed along Maine's coast and up its rivers, lured by the landscape and oblique northern light. They returned to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia with seductive paintings of sublime nature that helped attract more settlers, then wealthy rusticators, and then more artists. Those pioneering artists were equally aware of the landscape's economic potential: the resources of an accessible wilderness.
Waterville profited from the lumber of those forests and from mills powered by the Kennebec. Between 1810 and 1820, the town's population grew to more than 1,300, and its inhabitants raised funds to establish the Maine Literary and Theological Institution. …