George Lucas and his wife, Chicago investment fund chief Mellody Hobson, are giving $25 million to build a deluxe arts center for a private grade school and high school on the University of Chicago’s campus -- to be named for Gordon Parks, the celebrated photojournalist and film director who in 1969 became the first black director of a major studio film.
The gift, reported by the Chicago Tribune, will cover more than half the cost of the $43.7-million Gordon Parks Arts Hall, expected to open next year, housing a gallery and studios for visual art and performance spaces of 700, 250 and 150 seats. The facility will be used by students and faculty of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
The name and purpose provide links to Lucas’ profession as a filmmaker, but the $50 million in Chicago gifts Lucas and Hobson have announced in the last few months reflect Hobson’s position as president of Ariel Investments, a Chicago firm that manages $9 billion in assets. The couple married last June at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.
The Tribune said they were approached for the arts center gift by Hobson’s mentor, Ariel Investments founder and Chief Executive John Rogers Jr., an alumnus of Laboratory Schools and now chairman of its board.
In December, the George Lucas Family Foundation pledged $25 million over five years to After School Matters, a Chicago program that aims to keep teens out of trouble with career-preparedness and work-study programs. The gift will fund stipends that give teens an incentive to stick with the program.
Lucas’ biggest philanthropic gesture in L.A. has been his $175-million pledge in 2006 to his alma mater, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, which included near-total funding for a new Interactive Media Building that opened last year.
Meanwhile, officials in San Francisco have cause for concern that Lucas might decamp to another city –- perhaps Chicago? -- to build a museum to house his movie memorabilia from the “Star Wars” and "Indiana Jones" film franchises. It might also feature his art collection, which includes a prominent selection of Norman Rockwell paintings that was featured, along with Rockwell works owned by Stephen Spielberg, in a 2010 exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
This month, the board in charge of the Presidio's development unanimously rejected Lucas’ proposal to build the museum on a bayfront property he had preferred. It offered an alternate on the former Army base -- a proposal that a Lucas spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle seemed like “a hail Mary,” but would be considered. The Chronicle said Lucas told the Presidio Trust's board he’d also be listening to offers from other cities for his Lucas Cultural Arts Museum.
Parks , who died in 2006, went from farming roots in Kansas to launching his photography career in Chicago in 1940. By the late 1940s, he'd become the first black staff photographer for Life magazine, then one of the nation’s most prominent periodicals and venues for photography.
In 1969, Parks directed the Warner Bros. film, “The Learning Tree,” based on his 1963 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name about a teenager in rural Kansas. In 1971, he had his commercial breakthrough directing “Shaft.”
Parks also beat Oscar front-runner Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” to the punch by nearly 30 years, directing the 1984 PBS television movie “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey,” starring Avery Brooks as Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in the American South, then wrote a memoir after regaining his freedom on which the films are based.
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