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Harvard Divinity School given $10m gift

Harvard Divinity School has received a $10 million donation from Susan Shallcross Swartz, a landscape painter, and her husband James R. Swartz, founding partner of the venture capital firm Accel Partners.

The gift, which Dean David N. Hempton called “an astonishing act of generosity,” is one of the largest in the history of the divinity school, whose graduates often become academics, clergy, or nonprofit workers, earning far less than alumni of other Harvard graduate programs.

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“Though I can’t think of any Harvard school that would be unimpressed with a $10 million gift, it’s of a scale that is to us much more significant than it would be to, say, the business school or the law school,” Hempton said.

The money will fund a new endowment in Christian studies, underwriting new professorships, fellowships, and programming. Hempton said a small advisory board will help decide exactly how to spend the money, but it will probably reflect Susan Swartz’s interests in the intersection of Christian studies with the arts, social justice, environmental issues, and service. “Because it’s such a substantial endowment, it does give us real possibilities,” he said.

The divinity school was founded in 1816 and historically had a strong association with Unitarianism, but its faculty now includes leading scholars in all major world religions, and its students are similarly diverse. Hempton, a scholar of Christian history, said the Swartz gift does not represent a shift away from religious pluralism.

“If I had a donor in Buddhism tomorrow, I would be just as excited,” the dean said.

Swartz was not available for an interview, but in a statement she provided to the Globe, she cited both the divinity school’s global approach to the study of religion as well as its leadership in Christian studies as reasons for the gift.

‘Because it’s such a substantial endowment, it does give us real possibilities.’

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“Ultimately, we feel [the divinity school] is where the gift will have the greatest impact on a world that seems to be more polarized every day,” she wrote.

The Swartzes live in Park City, Utah. They have been major supporters of a variety of arts and cultural organizations, including the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard and the Christian Center of Park City, an interdenominational community service organization. They are founding members of Impact Partners, a company that helps documentary filmmakers who focus on pressing social issues obtain financing from philanthropists and investors.

Susan Swartz paints abstract landscapes, mostly in acrylics; her work has been displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, among other venues. Her website says her work is “inspired by the natural world and the intersection of spirituality and art.”

“An underlying energy and tension” in her paintings “hints of her complex relationship to the natural world,’’ the site says, adding that her decadelong struggle with mercury poisoning and Lyme disease “transformed her as an artist and as a citizen.”

Swartz said her involvement with the Harvard Divinity School began in 2005, when she became an artist-in-residence there. She and her husband got to know the dean, William A. Graham, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies, whose work the Swartz gift also honors, and Swartz became a member of the Dean’s Council.

At the opening of an exhibit of her work at the divinity school in April 2005, Swartz told those in attendance that she signs all her paintings “GTG,” for “Glory to God.”

“My journey as an artist and as a Christian are intertwined, it has blessed me in abundance and so much to fall back on when life tests me with pain and sorrow,” she said. “I pray that all who see my work will know His peace.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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