Barry Mills on the Art in the Liberal Arts

President Barry Mills is treated to a special Museum tour that underscores why the arts matter.

Hedrick Goltzius, Dutch, 1558-1617, "The Circumcision" ("The Early Life of the Virgin," pl.4), 1594, engraving, Gift of Charles Pendexter, 2009

I had the genuine pleasure this week to spend some time in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art with Charles Pendexter. On display in the Museum are just a few gems from Charles’s collection of over 1,500 prints and eight drawings that he has generously donated to Bowdoin. Cleverly titled “Scratching the Surface” by Museum director Kevin Salatino, this is the first of what will be many exhibitions of these works, since this show only begins to illustrate the depth, breadth, and excellence of Charles’s collection.

I write because my afternoon at the Museum was just another example of why it is so fantastic to be president of Bowdoin College. Charles had prepared a very thoughtful presentation and treated me to a very personal tour of the work. I had met Charles in the Museum a couple of months ago, and I suspect he could tell from that brief meeting that my knowledge of master prints might be somewhat limited, but he came prepared to educate me in the most generous manner. Charles had small note cards with the history and significance of each print and artist. He patiently explained to me the difference between etching and engraving, and we took a tour through history as we studied Durer, Goltzius, Goya and a more modern Italian print maker by the name of Giorgio Morandi.

Charles is a very gentle, but passionate man who informed me that he has been collecting prints for as long as I have been alive. Charles grew up in Maine and went to Bates. He was trained as a geologist and spent a career in that world, much of it working for Exxon. But it is clearly the time he spent in libraries, museums, and print shops around the world that means so much to Charles. Charles is a very precise fellow in his speech and in his description of his art—a man with a careful and educated eye.

Francisco de Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828, "Dios la Perdone: y era su Madre" ("For Heaven's Sake: and it was her Mother"), Caprichos, pl.16, 1799 etching and aquatint, Gift of Charles Pendexter, 2009

Charles spent years connected to Bowdoin with our Museum directors Katharine Watson, Katy Kline, and now Kevin Salatino. He appreciates the importance of prints to Bowdoin as he has admired the collection largely created by David Becker of the Class of 1970, the recipient of this year’s Bowdoin Alumni Service Award. “Scratching the Surface” is appropriately set out in the Becker Gallery in the Museum. David and Kevin were both with Charles as he educated me, both fellows having a very hard time containing their enthusiasm for the work and even a harder time restraining themselves from adding to Charles’s descriptions of each piece. I did hear quite clearly from David that, in some cases, our print collection now exceeds the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in quality and uniqueness.

The afternoon reminded me of the importance of liberal education and the importance of lifelong learning. Charles was trained as a geologist, but clearly his time at Bates reinforced for him a sense and sensibility to appreciate and collect art. Charles has continued his education throughout a long career and he was more than delighted to educate me as a maturing college president (only in years, I assure you).

Each of us is very well acquainted with the vocabulary of what we do for a living. I am very comfortable with the language of contracts and financial statements and, to a much more limited extent, some basic concepts in biology. The intricacies of a college curriculum are even becoming second nature to me. However, too often we live in limited worlds, fenced in because of unfamiliarity of the language of another discipline or interest. These are the limitations that a liberal arts education seeks to challenge.

At Bowdoin, we have created a set of requirements that set forth our aspirations for the education of the individual. They include a requirement designed to educate our students, at the very least, in the vocabulary of art, music, and theater. Our hope is that later in life, our graduates will not be intimidated by the complexity of these subjects and will be able to appreciate and enjoy the arts as an important and enriching part of their lives parts. In providing this vital foundation, maybe, just maybe, we are educating the next Charles Pendexter!

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Over the summer, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at mills@bowdoin.edu

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on here or on the Bowdoin website.

2 comments to Barry Mills on the Art in the Liberal Arts

  • Hear, Hear! It’s so important to remember the critical value of “education” in this time when so many people are obsessed with “training”. Thank you for emphasizing this important distinction.

    As for the Pendexter collection – what a marvelous gift to Bowdoin students and the people of Maine – a great feather in the Museum’s already resplendent cap! And while I’m at it, let me throw in another Bravo for the College’s recognition of David Becker – who has done so much to disseminate the delight of printmaking through his curatorial work for the museum.

  • Beth McKeown '87

    Erik! You are absolutely right, as always. The value of a liberal arts education is immeasurable and the contribution of Bowdoin’s excellent museum is enormous. Charles is indeed a special and wonderful person, and I hope he enjoys all the accolades he deserves. Thank you to Charles, David and Kevin for all the terrific work they are doing for the museum!

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