PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A $31.6 million gift from Diana Nelson and John Atwater will fund a central convening space in the cutting-edge performing arts center being planned at Brown and support other essential University priorities.
Of the couple’s total gift, $20 million will create the Diana Nelson and John Atwater Lobby in the performing arts center (PAC), a project envisioned as a hub for music, dance, theatre and multimedia arts scholarship at Brown. Among other strategic priorities, the additional $11.6 million will support the Brown Annual Fund and The Brown Promise, an initiative that has replaced loans with scholarship funds in all University financial aid packages.
The gift extends a long track record of volunteer and financial support for Brown by Nelson and Atwater. Atwater is a Brown Corporation member and Class of 1983 graduate who is founder and CEO of Prime Group, a leading real estate equity and investment firm. His wife, Nelson, is chair of the global hospitality and travel company Carlson and board president at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They have five children and live in San Francisco.
President Christina Paxson said their generous gift not only provides direct support to the PAC, but will also inspire other donors to play a role in the ongoing fundraising needed for Brown to move forward with building a centrally located, state-of-the-art home for the performing arts. As envisioned, the building will vastly expand the University’s ability to create and stage new works, combine art forms, and welcome world-renowned faculty and visiting artists to learn from and inspire scholars across disparate fields of study.
“The PAC will serve as a nexus for students and faculty to work side by side as they practice, experiment, study and perform,” Paxson said. “The Diana Nelson and John Atwater Lobby will inspire a spirit of freedom to collaborate and experiment that yields path-breaking work. It will serve as a central convening space for intellectual and artistic collisions that are both planned and spontaneous.”
Nelson said that in investing in Brown’s priorities, she and Atwater looked for opportunities to advance existing academic strengths.
“The strength of Brown’s programs in theatre, performance, music, dance and playwriting — and the ways in which creative expression is cultivated across a wide range of academic programs on campus — appealed to us deeply,” she said.
The creation of the PAC marks a moment when Brown is “dreaming big,” Atwater noted, and will be essential in attracting more talented scholars to the University and propelling academic excellence in the arts.
“The PAC will be transformative in the opportunities it creates for students, faculty and visitors to campus, and will also be a symbol of the University’s bold aspirations in the arts and beyond,” he said.
A convening space for the creative
Brown unveiled initial plans for the PAC in 2017 after launching the Brown Arts Initiative, a campus-wide effort to make the University a vibrant laboratory for inventive arts practice and scholarship.
In May 2018, the Corporation of Brown University approved a building site directly across from the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts and near other arts-centered academic facilities. The goal for the center is to serve as an academic building used primarily by students and faculty for classes, rehearsals, productions and research — yet with flexible spaces that will welcome audiences from the greater community for performances. The PAC is expected to attract the best faculty, visiting artists and students to Brown and provide them with the necessary diversity of spaces to experiment, work and perform.
In the coming months, the University expects to finalize the building’s design and seek the Corporation’s approval to proceed with construction in 2019. Key elements of the building are taking shape as Brown works to complete the PAC’s design with New York City-based architecture firm REX, which is known for its imaginative approach to cultural buildings.
The Diana Nelson and John Atwater Lobby has been conceived as a visually striking, welcoming space surrounded nearly entirely by glass, according to University Architect Collette Creppell. The space will appear from the exterior as a horizontal “slice” through the building’s façade. Visitors will enter via amphitheater-like steps leading from the exterior ground level up into the lobby’s entry vestibule. The lobby, which projects outward toward the campus, will provide expansive views south toward The Walk, a series of linked green spaces at the heart of Brown’s campus.
“Inside the lobby, glass walls on the exterior will enable visitors to see activities taking place at the Granoff Center, creating a dialogue between the neighboring Brown arts buildings,” Creppell said. “Interior glass walls will allow those in the lobby to peer into the PAC’s main performance hall and vice versa, contributing to an overall sense of openness.”
The building — fully accessible to individuals with disabilities — and the lobby will be open for gatherings before and after performances in the main hall and will be designed to accommodate performances, events and other functions. It is also envisioned as a space that will encourage informal interactions, both social and intellectual, as members of the Brown community venture through the building on a daily basis.
For Nelson and Atwater, the flexibility of the lobby space and the opportunities it will enable contributed to their interest in investing in the PAC.
“Our hope is that the lobby will serve as a public space with ample opportunities for students and faculty to activate it,” Nelson said. “We expect it will be used in ways we might not even envision at this point. To see this become a space that is frequently activated and used creatively in a way that complements the broader mission of a dedicated performing arts center would make us tremendously happy.”
Investing in education, the arts and the environment
The gift from Nelson and Atwater continues a long history of engagement on campus and support for Brown’s strategic priorities.
With a focus on investments in human capital, the couple has made previous gifts to establish endowed professorships both in the arts and in environmental studies. Through the University’s BrownTogether comprehensive campaign, they established the Diana Nelson and John Atwater University Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.
In addition to supporting the PAC, the new gift also advances a commitment to supporting the Brown Annual Fund, which supports immediate investments in strategic areas of University life ranging from financial aid to research to teaching and learning. Atwater serves as co-chair of the Brown Annual Fund at a time when contributions from alumni and others have propelled the Annual Fund to record-setting levels.
Taking a leadership role in the Brown Annual Fund has reinforced the importance of broad alumni engagement and cultivating support at a wide range of giving levels, Atwater said. That perspective ultimately influenced the decision by Nelson and Atwater to make a generous gift to support both the Brown Annual Fund and the PAC.
“We thought that gifts at this level would be among the most challenging for Brown to secure,” Atwater said. “In a major capital project like the PAC, gifts that complement both the broad support from donors at smaller levels and the potential for a gift that might name the building can be foundational to the project. Our hope is that this gift plays a role in powering the success of the PAC as a whole.”
Atwater has been a Corporation Trustee since 2015, is a member of the BrownTogether campaign cabinet and served previously on the President’s Leadership Council, among a number of roles supporting Brown.
Beyond the University, Atwater and Nelson have built a legacy of support for work in educational equity, environmental initiatives and public access to the arts. In addition to Nelson’s role at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the couple has actively supported Teach for America, Caliber Schools and KIPP public charter schools network.
Atwater is a trustee of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, former chair of the California Academy of Sciences and an advisory board member for the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Nelson is a director at Common Sense Media, a past director of the World Childhood Foundation. She is a 1984 graduate of Harvard College, where she has been engaged in a number of leadership roles including service as vice chair of the Harvard University Board of Overseers.
The couple said that their continued focus on the arts, and their investment in Brown’s planned PAC, come at a time when the arts can play a very necessary role in creating community.
“We truly believe that the performing arts have the ability to build and reinforce community bonds through shared experience,” Nelson said. “The arts and humanities have the power to help people think through complex topics, and they engender empathy as we see people’s stories told through theatre and music and dance. Brown is uniquely situated to bring another dimension to how we think about key challenges in the world.”