People gather in the atrium of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville on Thursday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

I think Paul J. Schupf would be pleased with the new arts center that bears his name in downtown Waterville.

Let me rephrase that: I know he would.

Paul J. Schupf

On Sunday — a dismal, gray, slushy January day in central Maine — my husband and I contemplated what to do with our free time. We decided it was time he had a tour of the new center.

We were greeted inside by a cheerful young woman at the box office and then checked out Bixby Chocolate Cafe which offers everything from chocolate croissants to chocolate candy — even chocolate puffins in a box. We stood by the giant glass wall overlooking Castonguay Square and a wintry downtown.

We visited the art galleries, climbed the massive staircase to the second floor and ducked inside Studio 1902 where a Waterville Opera House rehearsal was to start. We wandered up the glass skywalk leading to the Opera House lobby.

We perused the cinemas and chatted briefly with an affable attendant at the concession stand while inhaling the aroma of freshly popped corn. We looked out onto Main Street through a wall of windows.

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This is what Schupf wanted when he decided to help fund the center: a welcoming, inclusive, vibrant and accessible art center in the heart of downtown to which everyone is invited, free of charge.

Schupf, of Hamilton, New York, died of cancer in the winter of 2019 at 82. He was an art collector, a longtime Colby College benefactor and an emeritus trustee of the college.

When I spoke with Schupf in April that year, he had just committed what Colby President David Greene described as a “remarkable gift” to the future $18 million arts center that would be named for Schupf and to which many other donors contributed. Schupf told me at the time that he didn’t want to divulge the exact amount he gave, as he didn’t want to slight other colleges he gifted.

He was a fascinating man and an engaging conversationalist. We spoke for about two hours by phone as he sat in one of his side-by-side houses built in the 1830s. They were full of art and 25,000 art books, he said. He consumed everything art-related and it was important to him that people of all walks of life and experiences also learn about and have access to art, a passion that fed his decision to donate to the arts center in Waterville.

Colby College students Tori Fischer, left, and Fiona Vail complete homework Thursday on the second floor of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

His relationship with Waterville started in 1985 when he visited the city as a total stranger, not knowing anyone and never having set foot inside the Colby Museum of Art. That changed quickly when he met then-Colby President William Cotter, who embraced Schupf’s ideas about contemporary art — ideas college presidents elsewhere had dismissed, Schupf told me.

A native of Belgium, Schupf lived in Singapore before his family settled in New Rochelle, New York. He had developed a love for art and attended Colgate University, graduating in 1958, and later became a trustee and trustee emeritus and major donor to that school.

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“I’m passionate about art, and in 1985 I had a very good collection of Alex Katz,” he said. “Somebody suggested Colby and Bowdoin could do a joint summer exhibition entirely of my works of Alex Katz. The director of Bowdoin College’s museum had no interest in Alex Katz. (Former Colby Museum director) Hugh Gourley III was very interested in his work. I went up to Mayflower Hill for the first time, and I was very taken by Colby Museum.”

Schupf showed some of his artwork at Colby and eventually donated a fund to name a wing at the museum for Katz and show his works there. While other colleges were “petrified of innovative and disruptive ideas,” Cotter loved them and encouraged Schupf in his efforts, he said. Schupf donated numerous works by Katz and other artists to Colby, developed many friendships in Waterville and visited the campus three or four times a year.

In 2017, he met Greene, with whom he said he developed an extraordinary professional relationship and friendship. Having stage four cancer at the time, Schupf wanted to, and did, create a summer internship for Colby science and pre-med students involving Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Thus, the Paul J. Schupf Colby College/Sloan Kettering Internship was created. He also created the Paul J. Schupf Scientific Computing Center and Lorey Schupf Handbell Choir.

Schupf said that, during one of his long talks with Greene, Greene asked what he thought about having a museum presence in downtown Waterville. Schupf was delighted with the idea.

Imane Joumaa, facing camera, talks with Tricia Yang on Thursday while sitting in the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“I said, ‘terrific,’ and that would be absolutely perfect because some Waterville people are a little bit intimidated about going up to Mayflower Hill,” Schupf told me. “Having a presence downtown would be extraordinary for the city of Waterville, and that led to a discussion about the art building.”

Though he would never get to see the manifestation of his vision for the Paul J. Schupf Art Center which opened last month, Schupf was excited to know it would become reality and benefit everyone, regardless of status.

“The reaction to this has been really remarkable and I fully understand how impactful this is to the community, to Colby, to Colby students and to Mid-Maine and Maine in general,” Schupf said during our interview.

Whenever I pass by or visit the center now, I think of him and our talk — and marvel at the priceless legacy he left to all of us.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 34 years. Her columns appear here weekly. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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