Theater stages are often adorned with elaborate costumes that bring characters and stories to life and establish historical context for the production. Among those who best appreciate the prominent role costumes play in theatre is Jim Gunderson (Rachel Carson College/College Eight ’77, philosophy), who is ensuring that students in the newly formed Department of Performance, Play & Design at UC Santa Cruz have the opportunity to step into costumes that will enrich their experience and enhance their performances.

Gregg Barnes and Jim Gunderson
Gregg Barnes (seated) and Jim Gunderson at a 50th anniversary celebration of a production of Julius Casear with costumes designed by comics artist Jack Kirby. Photo courtesy of Jim Gunderson.

Though Broadway is a world away from the executive boardrooms Gunderson frequents in his governance practice, it is one in which he is well acquainted and closely connected.

Theater has been a significant part of his life for the past 15 years, and he has been able to apply his business acumen co-producing Broadway and off-Broadway plays and musicals, and philanthropically supporting nonprofit theatre productions, including several at UCSC. He has also supported the performing arts through service on boards of regional theatres such as Enacte Arts in San Jose, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, as well as arts education organizations such as the California Music Project.

Gunderson and friends Peter Coha (Kresge ’78, mathematics) and Gregg Barnes have jointly funded The Gregg Barnes Costume Design Award Fund, an $85,000 endowment to provide annual awards for ambitious costume design projects submitted by undergraduate students. The first beneficiaries of the endowment are students in the 2022 Winter production of The Artificial Woman with performances February 25 through March 6, 2022.

The inspiration for the endowment came from McHenry Library’s Special Collections exhibit on Transformational Creative Moments in Campus History in the Late 1960s, which was on display in May 2019. Featured in the exhibit was memorabilia from the Marvel-inspired production of Julius Caesar, that included costumes designed by legendary comic book artist, Jack Kirby. Gunderson gathered some industry friends in New York to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the production, and Coha and Barnes signed on to the costume initiative.

Barnes is a Tony-Award winning costume designer whose work includes a lengthy list of critically acclaimed hits. One of the most notable is the 2013 production of Kinky Boots, in which he designed the ornate costumes and notorious red boots, which were inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in March 2019. He was also the mastermind behind the extravagant headdresses and bejeweled livery in the 2011 revival of Follies.

Coha is Gunderson’s longtime friend and a fellow collector of vintage comic books. This is not their first joint gift to the university; the duo donated a significant collection of classic comic books to McHenry Library’s Special Collections in 2015, and have helped launch a number of initiatives, including the Speculatively Scientific Fictions of the Future research cluster and associated Prize in Speculative Futures, as well as the 2020 Barring Freedom exhibition.

His inspiration for giving to the costume design fund came from his close friend, the late Joan Stein, a legendary theater and television producer, through whom he first worked with Barnes.

“After Joan’s passing, I wanted to fill the void by supporting initiatives that she would have loved, like bringing to the stage powerful stories, which is what happens at UCSC,” said Gunderson.

“Supporting ambitious Theatre Arts productions with such rich subject matter is a way to help UCSC have impact on its students and the community. This fund will allow for a higher level of production than students would normally experience. If you have unusual subject matter, there will be UCSC students who embrace it to the extreme. UCSC arts can be at its best when it sets high aspirations, when students understand what really good costumes, set design and direction can accomplish.”

Gunderson’s intellectual breadth and depth of philanthropic and personal interests have inspired him to fund a variety of initiatives at UCSC. He and his wife, Valerie Boom, established the E.K. Gunderson Family Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics (named for his father), as well as the Gunderson Family Coastal Ecosystems Research Fund, which supports scholarships for students engaging in sustainability coastal research.