President's Speeches and Remarks

August 23, 2001

Good evening.  I'm Barry Mills, president of the College. Thank you all for coming here on this lovely Maine summer evening. We are here tonight to enjoy good food and good company, to celebrate art and to showcase the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and its collection. We hope you enjoy the memento we have for you [hold up magazine]. In it you'll see what a wealth of art museums Maine has to offer. For now, enjoy the wonderful meal that Bowdoin Dining Services has prepared, and I'll speak to you again when you've finished.

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Hello again.  I hope you've all had a chance to get to know each other a bit.  We have many new friends with us tonight, and many old friends⎯we are delighted you are all here.  I know you're eager to enjoy the museum and the video sneak preview presentation, but I'd like to take a few moments to speak to you before we all go inside.

Those of us who work at Bowdoin are very fortunate.  Whenever we walk across the Quad, we are reminded of the beauty of this state, and a glance at the Walker Art Building reminds us of the great works of art that have been created through the centuries.  It's easy for us to step inside for a quick look at a favorite painting or to explore a new exhibit.  But the museum is not intended just for our benefit.  That's why we've invited you here this evening.  The collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is among the oldest public art collections in America, and we want the public — those who live here year-round, those who spend summers in the area, those who drive through Brunswick on the way to someplace else — we want everyone to feel welcome at the museum and to experience the works of art that are held within it.

The Walker Art Building has been open to visitors since 1894, but the College's collection was in existence long before.  The collection originated with James Bowdoin III, the son of the Massachusetts governor for whom the College was named.  Bowdoin amassed an impressive collection of art in his lifetime.  This wasn’t typical for a man of his place and time, but Bowdoin was a friend and contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, and some believe he was influenced by Jefferson's interest in art.  At his death in 1811, Bowdoin left the College 141 Old Master drawings (one of which, incidentally, is on its way to an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) as well as more than 70 paintings.  These paintings included copies of famous works and also some impressive originals, including Gilbert Stuart's portraits of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which still hang in the museum.  Today the museum has one of the most important groups of Colonial and Federal portraiture in the country.  It also contains the widest-ranging collection of any museum in Maine.

After Bowdoin's initial donation, the College's collection continued to grow.  A series of Bowdoin family portraits and other paintings and engravings were donated to the College, as well as five large Assyrian reliefs that date back to the 9th century B.C.  As you can imagine, possessing a fine collection of art with no place to display it was troubling to many in the College.  Paintings were stored in Massachusetts Hall, moved to the "old" chapel and finally to the "new" chapel, which was their first formal display space.  Still, there wasn't adequate space to properly exhibit the work, and a permanent home was needed.

The permanent home is the wonderful building you see before you.  The Walker Art Building was dedicated in 1894, the centennial year of the college, and has had few exterior changes since then.  It was a gift from Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Wheeler Walker, who also had wanted Bowdoin to have a place to display its collection.  The sisters, fortunately for us, wanted the museum building to be as aesthetically pleasing and architecturally important as the treasures within it.  The building was designed by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead and White, a firm whose designs included the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House (which is an important landmark for me and a number of you also), the Brooklyn Museum, and the Morgan Library, as well as many other buildings on our campus.  McKim commissioned four well-known contemporary artists to paint the murals that adorn the inside of the dome and had sculptors create the lions you see flanking the doorway and a bronze relief inside the building.  The result is a building that integrates the arts of sculpture, painting and architecture — a fitting place to house the College's collection.

Today, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a space for undergraduates to learn about art history.  The Museum is an integral part of our academic program at Bowdoin.  Over 400 students in museum-based introductory Art and Archeology classes made multiple visits to study objects first hand. (facts from Katy) - Last year more than 300 additional students in classes from 12 departments came to examine works brought up for them from storage (departments ranged from History, Asian Studies, Classics, Anthropology, Sociology, Modern Languages, English, Government).  Six faculty working with Museum staff organized month long exhibitions in the Becker Gallery related to a specific course they were teaching:  from departments of Italian, Art History (2), Environmental Studies, Government and English.

The Museum is, however, much more than a space for Bowdoin students and its faculty and staff.  A museum is a public forum for the expression of ideas, and what better place for that to occur than at a college.  The museum mounts at least 15 temporary exhibits a year and hosts guest lectures by artists and scholars.  Its programs and exhibits reflect the intellectual inquiry that goes on at the College and invite visitors – over 25,000 last year – to enter into their own exploration of art and ideas.  

We are fortunate now to have Katy Kline at Bowdoin, to lead the Museum of Art into its third century.  A believer in the vitality of art, she is determined to use the collection to inform and inspire a broad cross section of society — from school children to college students to scholars.  We lured Katy away in 1998 from MIT's List Visual Arts Center, where she had been for nearly 20 years.  She brought with her an expertise in contemporary art and a respect for the tradition from which that art emerged.  

For example, to tweak the traditional summer exhibitions of Maine landscapes, the museum originated an exhibition series that explores the landscape in unpredictable ways.  Two summers ago, the museum featured Susan Hartnett's drawings of roadside grasses, and last summer it showcased the abstracted vision of Cranberry Island presented in Emily Nelligan's charcoals.  Hilton Kramer, who is with us tonight, is an admirer of Nelligan's work and credited the show with exposing a much wider audience to her talent.  The third installation in this series is on view now.

Thank you all for joining us this evening.  It is a wonderful event for Bowdoin and we are delighted to have you here tonight.  Please return to visit our College and our Museum often.  You are always welcome.  I'd like to present Katy Kline to say a few words about this and other current exhibits and to introduce the film.