Today, the arts play a central role in a Bowdoin education, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the first of a three-part series, Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd explores the history and trajectory of the arts at Bowdoin and the generosity, vision, and determination that have built extraordinary facilities, nurtured the impressive talent of faculty and their students, and continue to bring joy to audiences and thousands of art lovers each and every year.
In just a few short days, Bowdoin will mark the completion of a transformation of the former Longfellow Elementary School into the Edwards Center for Art and Dance when we hold the first classes in this newest Bowdoin arts space. We do so 200 years after James Bowdoin III’s bequest of a collection of paintings and drawings — the nucleus of our wonderful museum — arrived at the College in 1813. That coincidence offers an opportunity to explore the history of the arts at Bowdoin and to reflect on the role they play in our curriculum today.
The works bequeathed by James Bowdoin III and other works that were added to the College’s art collection were housed initially in Massachusetts Hall, next in the unheated wooden chapel, then in a gallery in the Upjohn chapel, before finally being moved to the Walker Art Building where they continue to reside. The gallery in the Chapel was created through a gift from Theophilus Walker (a cousin of President Leonard Woods).
The architecture of the Chapel — ringed by the art gallery and library — situated beauty, goodness and truth in the center of the campus. Pictures of the galleries and library demonstrate an approach to hanging art that is decidedly different from our modern sensibilities. Coincidentally, many of these works are on view now at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in an exhibition entitled James Bowdoin’s America: Paintings and Decorative Arts, 1660-1830.
In 1894, Harriet and Sophia Walker, the nieces of Theophilus Walker, gave the Walker Art Building in honor of their uncle. The sisters oversaw the commission for the building, selecting McKim, Mead, and White as the architects.
At the dedication, President Hyde stated:
In accepting this building the College accepts a larger and more symmetrical conception of education; and in dedicating it to purposes of art we dedicate ourselves to a larger and more enlightened service of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Around this time, student dramatic productions were introduced on the campus with the understanding that the faculty retained the rights of censorship. In the early years of the College students were specifically prohibited from attending any theatrical show. By 1903, dramatic productions were more regularized and the Bowdoin Dramatic Club was formed. Dramatic productions were soon regularized in the College schedule and this group became known as Masque and Gown in 1909.
While various musical societies were organized in the 19th century, often connected to the provision of music for the chapel, not until the end of the century were successful glee and mandolin clubs formed, after which the Glee Club continued well into the 20th century.
A painter was also arranged to provide instruction in drawing, but such instruction was not to be granted academic credit and the faculty rejected a proposal for a course in drama, deeming the subject too narrow. In 1897, a literary magazine, The Quill, was established. As Volume 1 describes:
The aim of The Quill is to furnish a medium of expression for the literary life of the college, and its columns are open to undergraduates, alumni, and members of the faculty.
Among the student founders of The Quill was Percival Proctor Baxter (Bowdoin Class of 1898), later Governor of Maine and creator of Baxter State Park.
In the next installment of A Brief History of the Arts at Bowdoin, Dean Judd looks at the introduction of academic credit in the arts and the evolution of art and music, then theater and dance, during Bowdoin’s second century.