Cross-disciplinary Connections: Behind That Huge Gift to Colby College

colby college museum of art

colby college museum of art

We've seen many gifts earmarked for the study of American art lately. We've also seen donors embrace a multidisciplinary approach to liberal arts education. But a recent gift in excess of $100 million to Waterville, Maine's Colby College kills two birds with one stone—and then some.

The school received the gift from Peter and Paula Lunda in support of its Colby College Museum of Art. Peter, the former Dexter Shoe Company president, graduated from Colby in 1956. Both Mr. and Mrs. Lunder received honorary degrees from the college in 1998.

The gift will add roughly 1,150 paintings, sculptures, photography, and works on paper to the museum's collection and launch. It will also launch the Lunder Institute for American Art, with the goal of establishing Colby as the "only liberal arts college with a world-class art museum and a global research center on American art."

Yet the real story, here, is the college's unique approach to engagement with other academic stakeholders. The gift will build upon the institute's "cross-disciplinary connections," which include:

  • A biodiversity lab that used works in the museum to identify landscapes and determine the latitude and longitude of each site;
  • A psychology class that selected artworks to analyze the psychological dimensions of facial symmetry, aesthetic beauty, and other artistic principles;
  • An English poetry class in which students were asked to analyze and compare the poetic form in the writings of Emily Dickinson and prints of James McNeill Whistler;

Of course, the idea of a multidisciplinary approach to the liberal arts—particularly as it applies to STEM fields—is certainly top-of-mind among donors as of late. For example, last year, Sarah Lawrence College announced a $2 million gift from alumna Suzanne Salter Arkin to create the Suzanne Salter Arkin Science Endowment, dedicated to attracting outstanding science students who want to pursue science while engaging with the arts, humanities, language, literature, and the social sciences.

And when we do see gifts earmarked toward the study of American art, they're usually pretty straightforward. Two recent Walton Family Foundation gifts—$20 million to the Amon Carter Museum of Art and $10 million to the National Gallery—establish endowments, exhibitions and internships. This, of course, is perfectly fine—there's certainly a market for such initiatives, particularly those that align with a donor's brand, which in the case of the Waltons can best be summed up as "art for the heartland." 

But the Colby curriculum is a different beast, and it's safe to say the Lunders also sense there's a market for their cross-disciplinary approach. Sometimes, it pays to think outside of the American art research box. That being said, the gift also represents another "big city" gift for a "small town" museum, despite the unique curriculum.

In a previous post looking at a $17 million gift for the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I noted how large gifts to such museums are coming fast and furious because: 

The bloom is off for giving to some of the very top art institutions like the MoMA or LACMA. In an age of so many billionaire donors, it's become harder for mere multi-millionaire donors to feel like their money makes a decisive difference at those places. 

The Lunders, however, have made an enormous difference at Colby College over the past decade. The recent gift adds to hundreds of pieces previously promised and given in 2007, valued at more than $100 million at the time. Mark Bessire, director at the nearby Portland Museum of Art, said, "This collection could have gone to the Met, the Smithsonian. Anyone would have leapt at it." Add it all up, and the Lunders have given Colby over $200 million in the last decade.

The gift also has a serendipitous element. When asked in 2010 why he attended Colby, Peter was blunt. It was, he said, "the only school I could get into."