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STATE

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

Behind the Curtain: Q&A with McKnight Center Director Mark Blakeman

Monday, December 2, 2019

Mark Blakeman speaking on stage at the McKnight Center

There's more to a performance than meets the eye... or ear. And when it comes to concert venue premieres, there's more still. 

Mark Blakeman, Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University, spent more than two years preparing to open the state-of-the-art concert hall, working to ensure that every detail was in order and the product on stage matches the magnificence of the space, not just this season but for countless seasons to come.

Just weeks before the premiere, Blakeman sat down with STATE magazine to talk about The McKnight Center’s design, function and impact.

Q: You have described The McKnight Center as a purpose-built facility. What do you think the ultimate purpose of The McKnight Center is and how does the design play into that?

A: Purpose-built in this case means that there was a very specific reason the building was being built and that drove the decision-making for the design process. Our mission is about transforming people's lives through the presentation of amazing art, essentially, if you distill it down. So creating the best possible environment to have those experiences becomes very important to that. Often the setting for an art experience becomes a central component to the overall experience. You can have great art presented in a substandard environment, and it will affect the experience people have. Likewise, you can have a state-of-the-art facility and weak programming and you won’t have the same kind of impact. So that’s what I mean by purpose- built. We’re trying to create this optimum environment for listening to music.

(With) most construction projects that would be of this scale, the architect would be this kind of supreme authority on design. That’s not the case with a building like this. The acoustician has veto power on practically every element of the building, whether it’s inside of a performance space or outside of a performance space. That’s something that architects usually hate — they’re so used to being in complete control — but it’s truly a well-designed building.

Q: What kinds of details does an acoustician look at?

A: Things like the selection of fabric that goes on the seat backs; the lighting fixtures are tested to determine if they emit any sound — and if they do, what’s the frequency range of the sound — things like that. Buildings like The McKnight Center are really intricately designed with lots of engineering, and they typically have a really long construction lead time. This was 21⁄2 years of construction. I tell people all the time it’s more like building a hospital or a research facility than it is like building a classroom or office building. There are a lot of custom materials and proprietary technologies that go into a space like this.

Q: How many performance spaces are there?

A: There are two inside, and then I count the outdoor plaza as a third. We’re going to use that in two different ways. We’re securing permission from our guest artists to broadcast their on-stage performances to the 32-foot LED wall in the plaza. Certainly for sold-out shows, ... people will be able to congregate in that green space and share that experience. It’s a different kind of experience out there than it is indoors, obviously, but I think it’s a great way to introduce people to what we’re doing without any financial barrier at all. I see the plaza as a great bridge to the community because any passerby can stop and see exactly what’s happening. It’s about community building and doing those closed-circuit broadcasts to the outdoor space is one way we’ll use the outdoor plaza. We also will develop programs specifically for the outdoor plaza.

Q: How will The McKnight Center set OSU apart and what kind of impact do you anticipate this world-class performance hall will have on OSU’s Greenwood School of Music?

A: It should be a sea change for the school of music. ... I think The McKnight Center, along with the OSU Museum and the Greenwood School of Music — when it’s finished — really strengthens the arts and culture component of the OSU brand.

"We’ve got all of the right ingredients for a really amazing recipe to come together and shine a really bright light on OSU and on Stillwater."

Mark Blakeman

Q: How does the New York Philharmonic’s involvement speak to the success of The McKnight Center vision?

A: They play across the U.S. and globally. They tour every year ... (but) they don’t do residencies in communities that have 50,000 people. They just don’t do it. There’s not another venue in the United States where you will be able to see the New York Philharmonic with only 1,000 other people. You can’t go anywhere else and have that experience. So we’re just very fortunate that we have this great state-of-the-art facility.

Q: Of course, having a world-class performance hall is just part of the equation. How has the McKnights’ visionary commitment to programming made an impact?

A: Billie and Ross McKnight’s leadership gift was to start an endowment from which the proceeds go specifically toward programming. The OSU Foundation has been working to raise funds as well, and [we now] have a $50 million endowment earmarked for programming. It’s the only way that we would be able to bring these amazing artists to Stillwater, because the typical business model for a performing arts center is butts in seats ... To be able to offer the New York Phil in one season, along with one of the best European orchestras — the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell, who is arguably the top violinist in the world — we just wouldn’t be able to do things like that if it weren’t for the vision of the McKnights and the gift they gave. It was a very smart and generous thing to do.

If we had a fancy building with a lot of technology in it and we couldn’t afford to bring in great artists, what would we have accomplished? We’ve got all of the right ingredients for a really amazing recipe to come together and shine a really bright light on OSU and on Stillwater.

Q: What are the broader implications for the Stillwater community?

A: The leadership within city government sees The McKnight Center as a catalyst for some real economic change and development. Using the formula from Americans for the Arts (a Washington-based arts and arts education advocacy group), I estimate that our economic impact for our first season will be about $11 million to the local economy. It’s not insignificant.

Q: With construction finally complete and the center a reality, what happens next? Is there more work to be done?

A: We’re very fortunate to have the endowment, but it doesn’t fully fund our operation. If you think about the kind of organization and structure that has to be in place to present the New York Philharmonic, it’s substantial. If we are not successful in annual fundraising year after year or ticket sales, it means that the endowment dollars won’t go as far. To continue to bring in the quality, variety and depth of talent, we still have to be successful in stewarding annual support on a regular basis to maximize what we can do. We need all of those pieces to help the puzzle come together, and I think people will continue to support and get excited about our programming mission. It’s more than worth it, for both the cultural and economic impact the world-class programming has on OSU and Stillwater and the state of Oklahoma.

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