LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson donate to Spelman arts building

History runs deep and wide in Spelman College’s John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts building: Alumna LaTanya Richardson Jackson and her husband Samuel L. Jackson first acted together there, and former students such as author and playwright Pearl Cleage and recording artist and writer Kathleen Bertrand put on work in its theater. Now Richardson Jackson and Jackson are donating $5 million toward the renovation of the building, the largest alumnae donation in Spelman’s history.

The Atlanta native and her husband took it upon themselves to gather funds for the renovation. George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, friends of the couple, contributed $10 million, and the Bank of America as well as descendants of John D. Rockefeller donated $2 million and $300,000 respectively, bringing the total funds to $17.3 million.

At 57 years old, Spelman’s Fine Arts building is in desperate need of renovation. Asbestos, poor ventilation and a lack of handicap accessibility as well as an outdated theater, dressing rooms and bathrooms all warrant the recent decision by the college to renovate, with construction officially starting in the spring of 2022.

“Renovation talk has been going on since I arrived at Spelman over seven and a half years ago,” said chair of the Theater and Performance Department Aku Kadogo. “You don’t really believe it until you see it, so I’m excited that this is happening.”

Arthur E. Frazier III, Spelman’s director of facilities management and services, echoed Kadogo, saying plans to renovate the building have existed for decades. However, it wasn’t until around 2015 that they became a major focus, when Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell — who originally came to the college to consult on said renovations — became president.

With this new attention, a few things became clear. The arts needed a new building, and it needed to house all disciplines under one roof. However, according to Frazier, building a new proscenium theater for the Theater and Performance Department would be too expensive. Instead, the college decided to construct a new building — the Center for Innovation and the Arts, designed by Studio Gang Architects alongside Atlanta-based Goode Van Slyke Architecture — as well as renovate the existing theater in the John D. Rockefeller building, ensuring arts students get a new, updated facility while simultaneously improving the theater and preserving the history of the Rockefeller building.

None of this could have happened without the intervention of actress and Spelman alumna Richardson Jackson. “Richardson Jackson expressed an interest in seeing the Baldwin Burroughs Theater in the Rockefeller building improved,” Frazier said. “One of the initial conversations I had with her happened to be on her 40th wedding anniversary. She shared that she and Sam met for the second time in that building. It has a special place in their hearts.”

Now, with a plan and a substantial budget, the college’s next step was to determine exactly what needed to be renovated. The consensus was to update the entire theater and stage while also expanding the lobby, both horizontally and vertically. Additionally, an elevator will be installed to ensure access for people with disabilities, and the restrooms and dressing rooms will be updated as well. Menefee Architecture, a group that has completed several renovations across Spelman’s campus from Packard Hall to the new Wellness Center, will spearhead the project.

When renovations are finished, the theater, lobby and dressing rooms will be renamed the LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson Performing Arts Center, in honor of their donation. It will be an exciting step for the faculty and students, who haven’t had a home for a couple of years due to both the pandemic shutdown and construction.

Having an updated space for themselves is only one of the many positives for the department. According to Kadogo, it’s rare that proscenium stages are built anymore, despite being such valuable teaching spaces. The traditional theater with a protruding lip past the curtain and a clear separation between actor and audience is being traded in for more modern designs, from black box theaters to theaters in the round.

“We’re all excited that renovations are happening, but we’re really at the beginning,” Kadogo said. “Truthfully, it’s more of a hardship in the moment because we’re operating in temporary spaces. It’s an endurance test, but we’ve just got to be positive going forward.”

::

Simona Lucchi is the inaugural ArtsATL Fellow, a year-long annual fellowship designed to mentor a post-graduate aspiring arts writer of color. She is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University with a double major in dance and journalism. Lucchi is also part of the ImmerseATL dance artist program. Her ArtsATL Fellowship is made possible through a generous gift from National Black Arts.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.

Our newest partner, ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be introducing more partners, and we’d love to hear your feedback.

You can reach Managing Editor Mark A. Waligore via email at mark.waligore@ajc.com.