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Museum of Art celebrates 125 years

February 22, 2019

PJ Seelert
CURATING CULTURE: A gift from the Walker sisters, the Walker Art Building first opened on February 19, 1894, establishing the fine arts as central to a Bowdoin education.

The bronze figures of Sophocles and Demosthenes, set in niches on the facade of the Walker Art Building, are turning 125-years-old. As the Bowdoin College Museum of Art celebrates the quasquicentennial anniversary of its iconic home, students, faculty and community members gathered on Tuesday evening to celebrate the legacy of art and visual culture at the College.

Opened on February 19, 1894, the Walker Art Building embodied the visions of two women—Mary Sophia Walker and Harriet Sarah Walker—to establish, preserve and commemorate the fine arts. The sisters offered the building in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Walker, a Boston businessman and former College trustee, who first proposed housing the College’s extensive art collection in a dedicated building.

Fondly nicknamed “the Jewel Box,” the building was designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the prominent architecture firm that built the original Pennsylvania Station, the Boston Public Library and Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library. The structure’s domed roof, sprawling front staircase and neoclassical columns are quintessential examples of the nineteenth century Beaux-Arts style.

“[The Walker Art Building] is the only building perched up high above all others. It’s like a sacred little temple that sits atop a great staircase,” said Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies Jill Pearlman in an email to the Orient.

Tuesday’s anniversary festivities, however, honored more than just the building’s grand aesthetic. Co-directors of the museum Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank Goodyear explained that they planned the celebration to highlight the significance of the museum’s collection to Bowdoin’s broader intellectual mission.

“We welcomed this 125th anniversary as an opportunity both to look backwards, to reflect on what we’re doing today and to look forward … We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to reframe our collections in the context of why we find them so meaningful,” said Anne Goodyear. “Especially in this day and age … we realized that art is not about the production of objects for the sake of decorating spaces. Rather, art is an expression of philosophical questions that inspire, motivate, puzzle humanity.”

The desire to place the larger philosophical tradition of the fine arts at the center of a Bowdoin education began before the Walker Building opened its doors. The purpose of art was rooted deeply in the philosophy of James Bowdoin III and his founding of the College.

While the museum is 125 years old, explained the Goodyears, the College’s art collection actually dates back to 1811, when James Bowdoin III bequeathed his collection of Old Masters drawings to the College, making them the oldest public collection of drawings in the country at the time. He also donated two paintings by the prolific American portraitist Gilbert Stuart, one a portrait of James Madison and the other of Thomas Jefferson. He commissioned both portraits upon his diplomatic appointment to Spain and later France.

The connection to France is particularly noteworthy, as James Bowdoin’s story coincided with a greater historical moment—the opening of the Louvre Museum in 1793 following the French Revolution. As a diplomat in France, James Bowdoin saw firsthand the civic significance of making art available to the public and inculcating an appreciation of the fine arts tradition in the population.

“We really have in France and in the United States at that time experiments going on with republican government and democracy. And what I find very exciting is the idea that access to cultural resources is seen as an essential ingredient to building a responsible democratic citizenry,” Anne Goodyear said. “So [establishing an art collection] is not just about educating people to be kind of connoisseurs. It’s really more, in my view, in the spirit of educating people to be citizens.”

Important to the organizers of the celebration was the integration of the rest of campus into the programming around the anniversary. Student voices were featured in the festivities, with performances from the Bowdoin College Modern Dance Company, the Bowdoin College Longfellows, Mindfulness over Matter Club and the Bowdoin Slam Poets.

“I recognize that sometimes [the museum is] an intimidating structure to enter … so developing programs where a wide variety of audience members can come and feel welcome and feel like they belong is something that’s really important to me,” said Curatorial Assistant and Manager of Student Programs Honor Wilkinson.

In his remarks at the celebration, Frank Goodyear read from an article published in the Orient on March 7, 1894 to mark the original opening of the Walker Building.

“We ought to sing more than we do,” read Frank Goodyear. “We want to get together on some of the balmy days and nights so near at hand, and, from the band-stand at the Oak, or better still, from the terrace of the Art Building, let our voices ring out the good old college glees and minstrel gems that used to be part and parcel of such a life as ours.”

Filled by the melodies of the Longfellows, the celebration showed the museum for what it truly is: not only a collection of valuable objects, but as the Goodyears would attest, a collection of people.


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