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Gambrell Foundation gives $10 million to Queens University of Charlotte for project

Artist rendering of the renovated theater building at Queens University of Charlotte.
Artist rendering of the renovated theater building at Queens University of Charlotte.

A member of the Belk family is giving $10 million to Queens University of Charlotte to renovate its five-decade-old arts building.

Sarah Belk Gambrell’s Gambrell Foundation is supplying the money, which is the lead gift toward a $20 million transformation of the building into an arts, culture and civic engagement space.

The site will be named the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for the Arts & Civic Engagement in her honor, university officials said.

“Her $10 million commitment is one of the largest gifts ever made to the university,” university President Pamela Davies said in a statement. “We couldn’t make this dream a reality without Sarah stepping forward to make it happen. This building will demonstrate, yet again, her tremendous impact on our community.”

University officials say the 63,000-square-foot building, located on the corner of the campus at Selwyn Avenue and Wellesley Avenue, has long been considered the “front porch” of the campus. It hosts hundreds of student and community events annually, which has prompted calls for expansion and renovation.

The $20 million project intends to transform the site into a state-of-the-art building for performance theater, with an outdoor plaza and galleries for permanent and traveling exhibits. It will also be a center for music studies and visual arts.

Sarah Belk Gambrell is a well-known business leader and philanthropist. Born in 1918, she is the second child and only daughter of William Henry Belk, founder of the department store chain Belk Inc., and his wife, Mary Irwin Belk. She learned business from her father and was director of the Belk-Simpson Group until 1998. She was also a president of various Belk companies through the years.

Gambrell has been a champion for access to education, women’s rights and fine arts. Her foundation has also provided money to a wide variety of social causes in the Charlotte area, including a $1.5 million donation earlier this year to help build a community meeting place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths. The project includes a 10-bed homeless shelter for LGBT youth.

“My mother, a quiet but determined leader, believes the arts contribute deeply to innovation and creativity in the business community,” said Sally Gambrell, daughter of Sarah Gambrell. “She could not be more humbled by this … opportunity to work with Queens to ensure that a vibrant arts community continues to inform a more creative business community.”

The arts curriculum and learning environment at Queens continues to grow in enrollment, the university says. Twenty percent of all Queens undergraduates are enrolled in arts-related courses in any given semester, regardless of their majors. Students may also take part in collaborative programs with partners including Opera Carolina, the Mint Museum, the Arts & Science Council, Charlotte Symphony and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Arts.

The new facility is set to be finished by fall 2019. Queens has more than 2,600 students in programs across the liberal arts and sciences, as well as the professional fields of business, communication, nursing, health and education.

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