The Colby College Museum of Art may seem off the beaten path, a three-hour drive north of Boston, but a gift of more than 1,150 works, ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Ai Weiwei, should help boost its standing as a tourist destination.
The gift, announced Friday by Colby, comes from a familiar source: Peter and Paula Lunder, collectors with strong ties to Maine and the college. In 2013, Colby’s museum opened a $15 million space to house a significant collection of the hundreds of works given by the couple. The new donation, along with money contributed to endow a new study institute, is valued at more than $100 million.
The Lunder Institute for American Art will host on-campus residencies for scholars, artists and graduate students and develop exhibitions and conferences centered on the school’s collection. Colby also plans to open a contemporary gallery sometime soon in downtown Waterville, an economically challenged city undergoing a slow, steady revitalization.
Colby President David A. Greene said he was excited about the Lunder Institute.
“Goodness, it’s game changing,” he said. “You may get this at a major university, but this is the kind of thing that is just never done at a liberal arts college.”
Some elements of the Lunders’ gift have already been on display, including Pablo Picasso’s “Vollard Suite,” a set of 100 etchings created in the late 1930s. Complete sets are rare, with just a dozen institutions throughout the world owning one, including the British Museum, National Gallery of Canada and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The gift also boosts Colby’s impressive collection of James McNeill Whistler, represented by 346 works in the museum, and adds contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei and Maya Lin. The time span of works in the Lunders’ latest donation stretches over centuries, from a 1501 Albrecht Dürer etching to a 2014 Julie Mehretu aquatint.
Peter Lunder is a 1956 Colby graduate and for decades was the president of the Maine-based Dexter Shoe Company.
“They have continued to collect since their last gift and in many ways they’ve pushed themselves as collectors and continued to push this collection,” said Sharon Corwin, the director of the Colby Museum of Art. “They started this collection as a collection of 19th-century French art and Southwestern art. To go from Henri Fantin-Latour to Olafur Eliasson is a pretty big jump.”
In a phone interview, Paula Lunder said the couple found it easy to make their latest gift.
“Natural,” she said. “That’s how it feels to us.”
She also said she and her husband continue to collect and see no reason to stop working with Colby.
“The reason we’ve gone into contemporary art is because we’re still learning,” said Lunder, 79. “When Sharon and her team of curators present us with something they’ve seen in the field of art, there’s a conversation. If we appreciate it, we don’t have to love it because we’re talking to art historians and we’re not.”