Film pioneer Sherry Lansing pledges $5 million to her alma mater, the Laboratory Schools

Sherry Lansing, a pioneer in the film industry and alumna of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, has committed $5 million to support a major new facility for performing and visual arts at the Laboratory Schools.

The new arts wing will support programs in theater, music and the visual arts with three new performance halls, studios, rehearsal and practice rooms, a digital media lab, and more. The centerpiece, a 250-seat multipurpose theater, will be named the Sherry Lansing Theater. It will provide an auditorium to show films, a space for a variety of artistic presentations, and also will serve as the performance and rehearsal venue for the high school theater program.

“The arts are a central part of the Laboratory Schools’ tradition, and the new wing will allow arts teaching and practice at Lab to set the standard for middle-school and secondary education,” said University President Robert J. Zimmer. “It is particularly gratifying to connect this impressive theater, and the theater programs that call it home, to Sherry Lansing. Her contributions to the film industry set a powerful example for future generations, and her work in philanthropy reflects the values and ideals of the Laboratory Schools.”

After a far-ranging career as a film producer and executive, Lansing’s gift takes her back to her roots. Lansing, who graduated from the Laboratory Schools in 1962, will be honored for her gift at her 50th high school reunion in June 2012. She is a former trustee of the University of Chicago and received the Distinguished Alumna award in 1993 from the Laboratory Schools Alumni Association.

“Attending the Lab Schools was one of the most important experiences of my life,” said Lansing. “It shaped my value system. I think what I remember most is that the Lab Schools were a non-judgmental environment, where we were totally free to be ourselves. What was important was academics — not other values that people might think are important, such as social status or how you look.”

“The Lab Schools taught me how to think,” Lansing added. “My education there wasn’t simply a matter of learning particular facts, but of learning to question, to analyze and to think strategically. It was a special place, and whenever I come back to the Lab Schools and to the University, the memories come flooding back. I feel honored to be able to give to the Labs Schools to support a multipurpose space for the arts.”

In 1966, Lansing graduated cum laude from Northwestern University and went on to teach in inner-city Los Angeles schools before joining the film industry. During almost 30 years in the motion picture business, she was involved in the production, marketing and distribution of more than 200 films, including Academy Award winners Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997). In 1980, she became the first woman to head a major film studio when she was appointed president of 20th Century Fox. She went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures from 1992-2005.

Lansing left Paramount as chairman and CEO at age 60 to pursue a new kind of career, which she refers to as “her third act.”

“I have an encore career, and I encourage other people to give back something in retirement and to have encore careers as well. It’s not always a matter of giving money, but of giving time. It is extremely satisfying and rewarding,” she said.

In 2005 she created The Sherry Lansing Foundation (SLF), a not-for-profit organization supporting cancer research and public education. Among the foundation’s initiatives is the EnCorps Teachers Program, which Lansing founded to retrain retirees from the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) to serve as California public middle and high school teachers in science and math.

Another SLF program is PrimeTime LAUSD, a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which engages retirees in improving the state of public education through targeted volunteerism. Lansing is also a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, an initiative which funds multi-institutional cancer research “dream teams” of doctor-scientists and has distributed more than $180 million in grants to date. In addition, she serves as chair of the University of California Regents and sits on numerous other boards, including the California stem cell institute, The Carter Center, Civic Ventures, The American Association for Cancer Research, the Lasker Foundation and STOP CANCER.

David Magill, director of the Laboratory Schools, said Lansing’s gift marks an important moment for the Schools.

“The arts are an important part of a well-rounded education,” Magill said. “The new arts wing will provide spaces to spur creativity as students develop their talents in music, performance and visual arts. The Sherry Lansing Theater will be a premier space that will be a central part of our arts wing.”

The new arts wing is part of a larger expansion of the Schools that will also allow Lab to maintain its diverse student body at a time of unprecedented demand, both within the University community and among families from the neighborhood and across the city.

“Careful planning is taking place to preserve our rich values and traditions as we grow in size and become one of the largest independent schools in the country,” said Magill.

In late September, the Schools broke ground for the Earl Shapiro Hall, named for 1956 alumnus Earl Shapiro. The facility on the 5800 block of South Stony Island Avenue will be the new home for Lab’s early childhood program, housing nursery school through second-grade classes.

American philosopher and educator John Dewey founded the Laboratory Schools in 1896 to test and demonstrate his educational theories. Since then, Lab has continued to be an integral part of the University of Chicago.