Conn College receives $20 million in arts funding

A $10 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a $10 million gift from Nancy Marshall Athey, Class of 1972, and Preston Athey will support the renovation of Connecticut College's Palmer Auditorium and Castle Court. (Artist's rendering courtesy of Connecticut College)
A $10 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a $10 million gift from Nancy Marshall Athey, Class of 1972, and Preston Athey will support the renovation of Connecticut College's Palmer Auditorium and Castle Court. (Artist's rendering courtesy of Connecticut College)

New London — Connecticut College has received $20 million to support the renovation of the Palmer Auditorium and Castle Court.

A $10 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a $10 million gift from Nancy Marshall Athey, a 1972 alumna, and her husband, Preston, will fund the renovations to support the college's arts programs, performances and research.

Deborah MacDonnell, public relations director for the school, said Friday the gift is among the largest in school history. It follows a $7 million gift in February from Pam Zilly, a 1975 alumna and chair of the board of trustees, which will go toward renovating the College Center at Crozier-Williams.

The largest gift to the college came in 2015, when Class of 1988 alumnus Robert Hale and his wife, Karen, gave $20 million to support financial aid, career services and the athletics facilities.

"Our strategic plan recognizes the importance of creative research as fundamental to developing imaginative and engaged citizens of the future," Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron said in a news release Friday. "We are so grateful to the Sherman Fairchild trustees and to Nancy and Preston for their extraordinary generosity and for making this vision a reality."

Renovations to the Palmer Auditorium, an art deco theater built in 1939, will include a new entrance, a new stage floor, classroom and rehearsal spaces, better seating and accessibility and a rebuilt façade. Castle Court, the space next to the auditorium, will be turned into a natural amphitheater and outdoor classroom.

The project is part of the college's master plan to turn the south campus into an arts destination, including the Cummings Art Center and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum next door on Williams Avenue. In addition to student performances, the auditorium has hosted artists including the New York Philharmonic, Dizzy Gillespie and the American Dance Festival in its nearly 80-year history.

David Jaffe, who leads the theater department at Connecticut College, said he helped in the development of the strategic plan for the school. As someone who took his first acting class on the Palmer Auditorium stage, he was happy to see this part of the project finalized.

He said that the renovation project shows the college's dedication to the performing arts and the students in those departments, as well as the role of those departments in the college's greater mission. It will re-energize all of the performing arts programs and make for more dynamic performances, he said.

In addition to the improvements to the performance spaces to make them more welcoming and up to date, Jaffe said the reconfiguration of the building also will bring all of the offices together for a more cohesive program for creative research; currently, they're scattered around the building.

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation and the Atheys are major supporters of Connecticut College, funding scholarships, research and science and arts initiatives over the years. In 2011, the foundation gave a $5 million grant to renovate New London Hall for the computer and life sciences programs. In 2012, the Atheys gave nearly $900,000 to purchase 14 Steinway pianos to make the campus an All-Steinway School.

"We are so pleased to play a part in bringing this wonderful project to fruition and to help in the reinvention of a venerable and historic building into a new center for the arts," Nancy Athey said in the release. "With this investment, we hope to bring the greater New London community to the campus and to contribute to the college's continued pre-eminence in the creative and performing arts."

The project is in the planning stage and is expected to be completed in 2020.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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