Following an extensive national search, Oklahoma State University announced the selection of Mark Blakeman, current president and CEO of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, to lead The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts. The approximately $70 million facility is currently under construction on the OSU campus. A generous $5 million gift from OSU alumni Marilynn and Carl Thoma established the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director leadership position at The McKnight Center.
“We are delighted to have attracted such an exceptional executive to lead The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts,” said Burns Hargis, president of OSU. “We are pleased Mark is onboard. He has a deep appreciation for the arts and shares our vision to create a premier center of excellence for the benefit of students, faculty and the broader community."
Prior to his three-year tenure leading the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Blakeman was the chief operating officer of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, where he worked for 15 years. He brings vast knowledge and direct experience overseeing large-scale construction projects, building programs and raising philanthropic support.
“Serving as the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director for The McKnight Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create programs, productions and experiences for a spectacular new first-class center at a university with a heart for the arts,” said Blakeman. “The support for the center is incredible as underscored by the remarkable gifts from several individuals, including Billie and Ross McKnight and the Thomas. They have given a wonderful gift, and I am eager to do my part to ensure The McKnight Center becomes a vital part of OSU, Stillwater and beyond."
Blakeman also noted one added benefit — his new position provides a way for him and his family to return home to Oklahoma. "My love for the performing arts was born in Oklahoma through its rich musical heritage. I am honored that this new position will allow me to help celebrate and elevate that tradition," said Blakeman, a native of Moore, Oklahoma.
Hargis praised the Thomas for their gift, which made possible the hiring of an executive director of Blakeman’s caliber. "We are deeply grateful to the Thomas for their generous and visionary gift. Marilynn and Carl are distinguished art patrons who know from their own experiences how the arts truly enrich lives.”
The Thomas are noted philanthropists and art collectors. After successful careers in brand management and private equity, they established the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation in 1986 to fulfill their passion for philanthropy.
“Marilynn and I believe in the power of the arts to connect people and enrich learning,” commented Carl Thoma. “When we heard about The McKnight Center and the innovative vision driving its programming, we wanted to get involved. Supporting this position and bringing in a prestigious leader like Mark was critical to us. We are confident Mark will bring the inspirational leadership necessary to create a robust, invigorating center. We are excited about the future of The McKnight Center, which will enrich the university and community, and will have far-reaching impact on a national level."
The Thomas added that the McKnights’ $25 million gift to create the programming endowment will ensure world-class programming, musicians and artists come to Stillwater. “Both Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma are so fortunate for Billie and Ross’ leadership in making the center possible.”
As the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director, Blakeman will work with the McKnight Foundation Board of Trustees and provide strategic direction and oversight to The McKnight Center. His scope of responsibility will include branding and institutional visibility, revenue enhancement, strategic planning, outreach, governance and financial management. One of his first tasks is to schedule the inaugural season and grand opening of The McKnight Center, which will include interfacing with the New York Philharmonic to develop and implement its residency partnership that was announced last September. It will be the first time in more than 30 years that the internationally celebrated organization will perform in Oklahoma.
In addition to multiple New York Philharmonic performances at The McKnight Center, the residency partnership will include educational opportunities for OSU students with Philharmonic musicians and management such as masterclasses, audition workshops and lectures.
The 93,000-square-foot McKnight Center is expected to open in October 2019. It will stand prominently along the southwest corner of University Avenue and Hester Street within walking distance of the Student Union, the Atherton Hotel and the ConocoPhillips OSU Alumni Center. For more information on The McKnight Center, visit: McKnightCenter.okstate.edu