Colby College in Waterville, Maine, recently made a bit of an unusual purchase. This week, the liberal arts school announced it had acquired two islands in the Atlantic Ocean, about five miles off the coast of Maine, where 20th-century American realist painter Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, once lived and worked, according to a report by the New York Times.
The two islands, named Allen and Benner, were purchased from two Wyeth family–affiliated organizations, Up East and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and will add some 500 acres to the school’s 700-acre campus about 75 miles away. Colby College paid $2 million for the purchase, with the two foundations donating to the college the remainder of its market value (somewhere between $10 million and $12 million).
“We could have held onto the islands, but to see them frozen in amber would be a tragedy,” J. Robinson West, president of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, told the Times.
Betsy James Wyeth, Andrew’s wife who died in 2020 at 98, purchased Allen Island in 1979 at the suggestion of the couple’s youngest son, artist Jamie Wyeth. And in 1990, she bought Benner, a smaller island next to Allen. On the two islands, she restored some of their vernacular architecture, designed her own buildings, and built a commercial-size dock for lobstering crews to use.
With its two new islands, Colby College plans to build an interdisciplinary study center there that could be used for ecological and scientific research projects. The school is still working out how else it might make use of the two islands to preserve what is there and how best to create additional educational amenities for its students. “My mother really did not want the islands to be a museum,” Jamie Wyeth told the New York Times. “She wanted them to be working islands. And they’ll be working even more now.”
Though Colby College has taken over the islands, the school doesn’t seem like it will necessarily look to become stewards of Wyeth’s legacy, which has recently been criticized. As part of a recent institutional survey of his work, scholar Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw called into question his representation of Black people in his paintings because in several instances the model for these works was what, and Wyeth simply painted her skin a darker tone and gave her curly hair.
As part of the arrangement, the school will not receive Wyeth’s artworks that were previously on the islands; those are still owned by the family foundations. Instead, the Colby College Museum of Art will mount an exhibition, titled “Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death,” in June. That show will debut a series of drawings that Wyeth made depicting his own funeral, and which he hid from his family during his lifetime. The drawings often feature images of himself in a coffin, with friends and family overlooking the casket.
Jamie Wythe is still the owner of two other nearby islands that are connected to his parents, Southern Island and Monhegan Island. He told the Times, “It’s very tough for me because I spent so much time out here. But I think it’s a wonderful future for the islands.”