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Picasso, LeWitt and 1,150 works are part of more than $100 million gift to Colby art museum

Ai Weiwei’s “Colored Vases,” 2006-2008. (Christie’s Images Limited/Colby College Museum of Art, the Lunder Collection)
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The Colby College Museum of Art may seem off the beaten path, three hours north of Boston, but a gift of 1,150 works, ranging from Vincent Van Gogh to Ai Weiwei, should help boost the Waterville, Maine, campus as a tourist destination.

The gift, to be 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, which includes money 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 around the museum’s collection. Colby also plans to open a contemporary gallery sometime soon in downtown Waterville, an economically challenged city undergoing a slow, steady revitalization.

“Goodness, it’s game changing,” Colby President David A. Greene said of the Lunder Institute in particular. “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.”

For Colby, Greene says the focus on art is all the more important as so many institutions are de-emphasizing the humanities. Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, which is unrelated, announced plans last month to eliminate English and philosophy as majors.

A gift of this nature also is key to a museum like Colby’s. While Yale University (1832) and Harvard University (1896) founded their art museums more than a century ago, the Colby College Museum of Art didn’t open until 1959. With an annual acquisitions budget of about $500,000, the museum can’t dramatically upgrade its collection without significant donations.

The Lunder’s gift includes Pablo Picasso’s “Vollard Suite,” a set of 100 etchings created in the late 1930s. A similar set of the etchings sold for $3.3 million at Sotheby’s in 2013.

The gift also boosts Colby’s already impressive collection of James McNeill Whistler, represented by 346 works in the museum, as well as adding such contemporary artists as Ai Weiwei and Maya Lin. The time span of works in this donation covers centuries, from an Albrecht Dürer etching from 1501 to a 2014 Julie Mehretu aquatint.

“They [the Lunders] have continued to collect since their last gift, and in many ways they’ve pushed themselves as collectors and continued to push this collection,” says Sharon Corwin, the director of the Colby Museum of Art. “They started this collection as a collection of 19th-century French art. To go from Henri Fantin-Latour to Olafur Eliasson is a pretty big jump.”

[Harvard’s three-in-one ‘teaching museum’ offers other art institutions much to learn]

Corwin says building a stronger connection to Waterville also is important. The city is less than a mile from Colby’s campus.

“But distance is misleading because the college is kind of up on this hill,” she says. “It’s further away than it seems.”

So Corwin has been trying to build connections to the city and region through art. In 2014, Colby worked with the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation to create the Langlais Art Trail, which features the late sculptor Bernard Langlais’s work at more than 50 sites across Maine.

Paula Lunder, in a phone interview, said the couple found it easy to make its latest gift.

“Natural,” she said. “That’s how it feels to us.”

She also said they remain collectors 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.”