Waterville, Maine — Descending a flight of stairs, Hugh Gourley III, director of the Colby College Museum of Art, leads the way to a treasure chest of art - the museum's storage area. Inside, past the shelves of Chinese porcelains and the statuary clustered on the floor, Mr. Gourley stops and tugs on a metal frame. A screen slides out revealing four works by Winslow Homer.
Pointing to a small oil work in a gold frame, Mr. Gourley says: ''This was actually a study for Homer's noted work 'Breezing Up' on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. However, there are several differences between this study and that painting. Here we see five boys in the sailboat Flirt. But in that larger work, there are only four boys and they are sailing in the Gloucester.''
These observations reflect a vital aspect of a museum director's role - attentiveness to details. Mr. Gourley says, ''A thorough knowledge of the collection gives me much flexibility in arranging exhibitions which are meaningful for students.
He has cataloged the works of this diverse and growing collection that now numbers almost 3,000 works of art. The collection features important American paintings and craftwork from the Colonial period to the present. There are also works by the French Impressionists and by Dutch masters, antiquities from ancient Greece and Rome, and Chinese porcelains. Each work is photographed and briefly synopsized in terms of the artist, style, and period.
Considering the quality of its collection, the museum is relatively new. It was established in 1959 by J. Seelye Bixler, a former president of the college, who said, ''The Art Department should not have to live in a garret.''
Mr. Gourley says: ''When I was offered the position at Colby in 1966 as the museum's first full-time director, I could see the potential for growth. This posed an exciting challenge.''
Previously, he had been at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was curator of decorative arts for seven years. Laughingly, he says: ''That job was just offered to me as I was completing a two-year graduate program in fine arts at Yale University. Times have changed. No longer is one just offered a job like that directly out of grad school.''
For Gourley, a significant part of the graduate program involved a summer internship at the Hartford Atheneum. ''This was an invaluable experience,'' he says, ''because I worked with two brilliant men - Evan Turner, who is now the director of the Cleveland Museum, and Charles Cunningham, who later assumed the directorship of the Chicago Institute.
''The internship program involved many of the activities that I am now involved with at Colby. We worked on exhibitions - planning and hanging the shows and writing the accompanying catalogs. In preparing these exhibits both men emphasized quality, variety, and scholarship.''
Gourley concluded his graduate work at Yale the following year. ''At Yale,'' Gourley relates, ''I took art-history courses and worked with museum people at the Yale Gallery. I was particularly interested in prints and drawings, so I did a show featuring works culled from the Yale collection of 19th-century prints and drawings.''
The experiences at Yale and in Hartford enabled Gourley to make a smooth transition into his position at the Rhode Island School of Design as curator of decorative arts. Here he prepared major shows on silversmithing in America and Townsend and Goddard furniture.
In Gourley's 16 years at Colby, the museum has gone through several significant phases of development. The latest is a $1.6 million endowment recently left to the museum by Jere Abbott. The endowment is specifically for the acquisition of art. It enables the museum to acquire works autonomously for the first time in its 23-year history.
''An acquisitions committee is being formed presently,'' Gourley says. ''It will be comprised of six professionals, including Mark Brady, a recent Colby graduate who now works with a major auction house in New York City.'' There is no purchasing schedule yet, but Gourley says the museum will not draw on principal and no acquisitions will be made for at least a year.