UChicago community celebrates Gordon Parks Arts Hall

The Gordon Parks Arts Hall at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools opened this month with events to celebrate the new artistic opportunities the facility is creating for Lab students, the philanthropy that made the project possible, and the inspiring legacy of the building’s namesake, filmmaker Gordon Parks.

The celebration included a panel discussion featuring major artists who discussed the power of the arts in their lives. The UChicago community is honoring Parks’ impact in the arts with more events this fall.


In 2014, the George Lucas Family Foundation pledged $25 million to the Laboratory Schools in support of the new facility, which strengthens programs in theater, music and the visual arts with three new performance halls, including the Sherry Lansing Theater, named for the Lab alumna and former head of Paramount Studios. The building includes new studios and rehearsal spaces, and has allowed Lab to offer new courses in filmmaking, thanks to a dedicated digital media lab. These new spaces align well with Lab’s approach to education by supporting a renewed emphasis on “learning by doing,” allowing students to experience the artistic process firsthand as they create their own work.

The building’s John Rogers and Victoria Rogers Lobby is named for John W. Rogers Jr. and his daughter, a graduate of the Laboratory Schools. Rogers, a University trustee and Lab alumnus, is chairman, CEO and CIO of Ariel Investments.

At the request of filmmaker George Lucas and financial executive Mellody Hobson, his wife, the building is named in honor of Parks, the American photographer, writer, film director, musician and social justice advocate.

“The Gordon Parks Arts Hall allows the Laboratory Schools to integrate the arts more deeply into its distinctive educational program and to re-conceptualize the role that the arts can play in this education,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “We are profoundly grateful to George and Mellody for their support of this wonderful facility, which will serve generations of Lab students.”

To celebrate the opening of the Gordon Parks Arts Hall, Hobson and Lucas convened an Oct. 2 panel of prominent artists, including Francis Ford Coppola, Theaster Gates, Jeff Koons, Janelle Monáe and Samuel L. Jackson. The panelists reflected on their artistic journeys, and in various ways upon the importance of dedication and hard work in success, the importance of the encouragement they received from others, and the role of the arts in fostering connection and inclusion.

The celebration continued on Oct. 3 with an open house for Lab families, faculty, staff and alumni. The day’s events included remarks from Laboratory Schools director Robin Appleby, a panel discussion with representatives of the Gordon Parks Foundation and members of Parks’ family, and a conversation with Lansing and New York Times journalist and Lab parent Monica Davey, both graduates of the Laboratory Schools. Looking back on her experience at the schools, Lansing remembered Lab as a tolerant and inclusive community that taught her the value of humanity.

An inspirational namesake

In her remarks, Appleby encouraged students to take inspiration from Parks.

“The potential this building brings to Lab is also worthy of its inspirational namesake, and we are proud to share in his legacy,” she said. “Gordon Parks overcame obstacles at every juncture. He set his sights on project after project, and through incredible self-determination, intelligence and motivation, he became that truly rare Renaissance person whose artistic talents extended the cause of social justice. May his story and his passion infuse the work that will unfold under the roof that bears his name.”

Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks left home in his teens and traveled the country while working as a waiter on a passenger train line. He bought his first camera in 1938, launching a long and storied photography career.

Parks was the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life magazine, where he worked for two decades, capturing iconic images of the civil rights movement and portraits of public figures, including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.

As a photographer, he is best known for works such as “American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942,” a photograph of an African American cleaning woman in Washington, D.C., holding a broom in one hand and a mop in the other, with an American flag behind her; a series of photos telling the story of Flavio da Silva, a child living in the slums of Brazil; and photo essays about young people growing up in Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago. Parks also directed feature films, including The Learning Tree and Shaft.

Teaching parks’ work

As students familiarize themselves with the new building, they are also becoming acquainted with the artist for whom it is named.

Along with her colleagues Allison Beaulieu and Sunny Neater, Lab art teacher Gina Alicea spent the summer designing special programs and projects to help introduce students to the themes of Parks’ work. In addition, Lab faculty members were provided with copies of Parks’ memoir, A Hungry Heart, to read over the summer. 

In the Lower School, teachers are sharing examples of Parks’ work with students and asking them to draw Life magazine cover images, depicting their hopes for America’s future. Middle schoolers are responding to Parks’ civil rights-era photography by designing posters regarding political and social issues that interest them. At the high school level, students are producing mixed-media pieces about race in America and photography in the style of Parks.

Students of all ages are visiting an exhibition of Parks’ photography curated by the Gordon Parks Foundation, which is on display in the gallery of the Gordon Parks Arts Hall. There, students have the opportunity to see Parks’ photography up close and have discussions about the social concerns that the images raise.

Members of the UChicago community have the opportunity to experience Parks’ work at Doc Films. On Thursday evenings this fall, the student film society is screening seven of Parks’ films as well as two documentary films about Parks.