A Major Gift for the Arts

Donation Will Aid Colby-Sawyer Construction Plan

  • Associate Professor David Ernster places a lump of clay on the potter's wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center's ceramics studio at Colby Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Associate Professor David Ernster places a lump of clay on the potter's wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center's ceramics studio at Colby Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • David Ernster, Associate Professor of ceramics at Colby Sawyer College, forms a clay vase on the wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center in New London last week. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    David Ernster, Associate Professor of ceramics at Colby Sawyer College, forms a clay vase on the wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center in New London last week.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Sawyer Fine Arts Center at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014. College officials are raising money to build a new arts center. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    The Sawyer Fine Arts Center at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014. College officials are raising money to build a new arts center.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Associate Professor David Ernster places a lump of clay on the potter's wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center's ceramics studio at Colby Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • David Ernster, Associate Professor of ceramics at Colby Sawyer College, forms a clay vase on the wheel in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center in New London last week. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • The Sawyer Fine Arts Center at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., on May 16, 2014. College officials are raising money to build a new arts center. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

For the past five years, the Fine and Performing Arts Department at Colby-Sawyer College has been operating out of two buildings. The New London college’s Sawyer Fine Arts Center is too small, so classes and studios in painting and photography are held in the Reichhold Science Center.

Bert Yarborough, who heads the painting program, said the two buildings are only a short walk apart, the length of a couple of city blocks, but that it would be better to have all the arts in one place.

“There’s no substitute for that feeling of a large community working in concert,” he said.

The small college has been raising money to build a new arts center, a building that arts faculty and Colby-Sawyer administrators said promised to transform the campus and the community. So far, gifts and pledges total $7 million toward the estimated $21 million cost. Last week, Colby-Sawyer announced that a California couple had given $3 million to support the arts.

The donation, from Bill and Sonia Davidow, earmarks $1 million toward the arts center and $2 million to establish the Sonia C. Davidow ’56 Endowed Chair in the Fine and Performing Arts.

The Davidows’ gift is a big one for Colby-Sawyer, “a game-changer,” Beth Cahill, vice president for advancement, called it, but the college needs more big donations, and many small ones, to build the arts center.

“We’re still working hard to raise everything we need to build this building,” President Tom Galligan said Friday.

Colby-Sawyer completed its most extensive campus master plan two years ago, and the arts center is at the heart of that plan. It would form one side of a new academic quad that has started to take shape with the construction of the Curtis L. Ivey Science Center and the Windy Hill School, the college’s laboratory preschool.

Once the arts center opens, college officials could then turn their attention to renovating and doubling the size of Reichhold to improve the facilities for the school’s nursing program and other health-related majors, Galligan said. The Sawyer Center would likely be torn down.

“The arts center is the key academic piece of that master plan,” he said.

Colby-Sawyer is a liberal arts college with a practical streak. It offers programs in nursing, early childhood education and other fields that lead directly to the job market. But it also requires every student to take at least one course in the arts. With the student body climbing from 900 to around 1,400 over the past several years, those courses have gotten full.

“The space needs to reflect the quality of the programs, the faculty and the students,” Galligan said.

The arts center also would be a magnet for the community, with performances, art exhibitions and courses through “Adventures in Learning,” Colby-Sawyer’s lifelong learning program, Galligan said.

The Sawyer Center, he added, “wasn’t big enough the day it opened,” in 1960.

Yarborough, who has been teaching at Colby-Sawyer for almost 14 years, sees the arts center as a boon for students and for the town.

“I think it would change the entire college, the entire community of New London,” he said. “It would be the most significant building we would have on campus to date.”

Raising money for such a large project is no small feat for Colby-Sawyer. It has a much smaller and less well-to-do donor base than many other New England colleges, to say nothing of Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth College.

The donation from the Davidows has a Dartmouth connection: Bill Davidow is a Dartmouth graduate. He and Sonia met when he was in Hanover and she was earning a medical secretary degree at what was then Colby Junior College. They relocated to California, where Bill earned master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering. He was a vice president at Intel.

Dartmouth just completed a major new art building. The Black Family Visual Art Center was paid for almost entirely by $48 million gift from investment manager and former trustee Leon Black.

“We need Mr. Black,” said assistant professor Mary Mead, who teaches printmaking at Colby-Sawyer. “Too bad he didn’t marry a Colby-Sawyer girl.”

Colby-Sawyer officials are talking with potential donors about a capital campaign that could put the arts center over the top. Nearly all of the funding will likely have to come from donations, as Colby-Sawyer carries little debt.

With the small college planning to top out at an enrollment of 1,500, it is embarking on a major marketing push, Galligan said. Colby-Sawyer needs to expand its reach beyond New England, and will start by trying to reach students in New York and Ohio. The college already has a growing population of international students, Galligan said.

The Fine and Performing Arts faculty has been patient and hardworking in its current space, Galligan said. The arts center would recognize and celebrate their efforts.

“They deserve it and the students deserve it,” Galligan said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.