WATERVILLE, Maine — She refers to her previous role as a housewife — or, in her words, “hausfrau.” He speaks just above a whisper, never hinting at the tough business negotiations it took to build a remarkable art collection. They are Paula and Peter Lunder, whose gift of art has transformed the Colby College Museum of Art and bolstered an emerging cultural renaissance in this battered section of central Maine.
On Sunday, the couple’s contribution will be the centerpiece of a celebration on campus, when Colby officially opens the $15 million Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, a three-story, 26,000 square-foot space that will make the university home to the largest art museum in the state, surpassing the Portland Art Museum. The entire space will be occupied by 280 of the 500 works given to Colby by the Lunders in 2007, including works by Winslow Homer, Sol LeWitt, Georgia O’Keeffe, and James McNeill Whistler.
“The key to this whole project is the collection itself,” said Colby president William D. Adams. “We wouldn’t be doing the building if we didn’t have the collection. And we think it makes an important statement to the college, to the community, to Waterville, and central Maine.”
As part of the opening, the Lunders also recently agreed to do something that’s out of character: talk to the press. Back in 2007, when the museum announced the gift, the Lunders politely declined an interview request. They said they wanted to keep the attention on Colby and the works being given to the museum, a collection valued at $100 million.
‘If we went to a big city museum . . . much of the collection could sit in the basement. Here, it’ll be shown.’ — Peter Lunder, who with his wife contributed their art collection to Colby College in Maine
But recently, Paula, 76, and Peter Lunder, 79, agreed to discuss their gift and the new pavilion along with museum director Sharon Corwin. The three did not hide their enthusiasm.
In the bright new gallery housing contemporary work, Peter Lunder stood in front of a piece by Paul Kos, “XC on Brushstrokes.” It features a painted scene of a snowy section of woods. A projector hangs on the ceiling and, every few minutes, a short clip showing a moving figure begins to play on the canvas.
“Wait,” Peter Lunder said, not wanting to totally give away the secret. “Wait ’til you see the man.”
There he was, a man on cross-country skis cutting a path in the snow.
“That’s so fabulous,” said Paula Lunder, standing just behind her husband. “People say, ‘Do you miss it?’ Well, our walls are sort of empty. But imagine something of yours installed [in such a striking way].”
The Lunders say their reason for giving to Colby is twofold. It is about the connection to the school, from which Peter Lunder graduated in 1956, and to the state of Maine, which became home during his decades as president of the Dexter Shoe company. (They now divide their time between Maine and Florida.) They love the idea of making their art accessible to both students and the community. That is particularly important in Waterville, a city whose downtown is filled with shuttered businesses and where the median household income is just $26,816, according to census figures.
Corwin said the city has been on the upswing culturally, with the recent renovation of the Waterville Opera House, growth of the Maine International Film Festival, and improvements made at the Common Streets Arts gallery.
“There’s a wave which the museum is part of and will hopefully help change the profile of this town,” she said.
For the Lunders, Colby was also appealing for a very practical reason. They have relationships with larger museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but they want to be sure their collection is seen. The bigger the institution, the greater the likelihood the artworks would spend much of their life in storage.
A case in point for Peter Lunder was the donation by John D. Rockefeller III and his wife, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, of more than 1oo works to the de Young museum in San Francisco in the late 1970s. The Rockefellers knew other institutions probably coveted the works. But the de Young would actually show them.
Just as Colby College will proudly feature the Lunder collection.
“If you went to the Metropolitan or the MFA, if we went to a big city museum, there’s a possibility much of the collection could sit in the basement,” said Peter Lunder. “Here, it’ll be shown and used by students.”
The Lunders began collecting four decades ago. They moved from antiquing in Maine to auction houses and big city galleries. Over time, their artistic tastes have shifted, from 18th-century European sculpture to later American works by Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Frederic Remington, and, finally, to the contemporary pieces of Alex Katz, Jenny Holzer, and Richard Estes.
They haven’t always agreed on what they like.
“Peter liked Southwestern, and I didn’t love it,” said Paula Lunder. “I like the Sargents, the Homers. We both loved Whistlers. But I now adore the Southwestern.”
“Art,” she said, “is to learn from.”
Barbara and Ted Alfond, whose family foundation made the largest financial gift, $5 million, for the gallery expansion and have also been longtime supporters of Colby — the new pavilion is being named in part for them — have watched the Lunders turn from dabblers into collectors over decades. Ted Alfond’s father, Harold, founded the Dexter Shoe Company and hired Peter Lunder, his nephew, in the 1950s.
“Peter was a very hard-working executive,” said Ted. “He could have been described as a workaholic. And their hobby, when they weren’t working, became buying art. They started reading up on weekends and got very knowledgeable.”
Though Paula Lunder does tend to do more of the talking in public, her husband is totally involved in the collecting.
Elizabeth Broun, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a friend of the Lunders, says they are equal partners in their pursuit of art.
“Paula has a full vote, and Peter approaches it as if he were CEO of a corporation,” she said.
The difference, Bround says, might be in their personalities.
“He’s from Maine and she’s from Chicago,” she says. “He’ll say, I want to confirm the agreement but keep it all on one page, don’t write anything fancy. She’s a Midwesterner. The first time you meet her, she’s already best friends.”
That’s clearly the dynamic at Colby, where she, Corwin, and museum associate director Patricia King have grown close.
“The museum and Colby, to them, is a family, and they treat us as such,” said Corwin. “It’s a collaborative experience.”
Walking through the galleries, Paula Lunder lifts the cloth placed over some works to protect them from light and smiles as she sees a particular favorite. The couple say they are thrilled by the installation, which will include only their works for a year and then start mixing in other pieces from the museum’s 8,000-piece collection. They see no need to second-guess which works are installed and how they are displayed.
“Why would we, as collectors, tell museum people how to install?” said Paula Lunder. “We know them. We have lived with them. We hear them talk about art. We like other people’s interpretations.”
Not that the Lunders hesitate when they want to speak up. The one exception to their no-meddling rule is a small (14 ¼-by-10 inch) painting on paper by Henry Francois Farny, “Indian with Family, 1908,” a masterful winter image defined by a soft, rising twilight. That piece was not originally set to be displayed when the pavilion opened this month. Now it is.
“It’s small, some people would say it’s insignificant,” said Paula Lunder, pointing out the piece. “But to me, it’s amazing.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.