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OSU President Burns Hargis (from left) and Ann Hargis celebrate the grand opening of the McKnight Center for the Performing Arts with Bille and Ross McKnight.

Composing a Legacy

Monday, December 2, 2019

Philanthropy builds McKnight Center’s framework

The names of 22 families and organizations glow subtly from wooden tiles inlaid in the wall of the Patron Lounge on the second floor of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts.

They represent the early adopters of the project who boldly invested $1 million or more to see the vision of The McKnight Center and its programming endowment come to fruition.

“Everyone really stepped forward big,” Patron donor Marilynn Thoma said.

She and her husband, Carl Thoma, donated $5 million to endow the executive director position in 2017. The position, currently held by Mark Blakeman, and the building’s grand atrium bear the family’s name, and Carl Thoma is a vice chair on The McKnight Center’s board of trustees.

The couple operates the Chicago-based Thoma Foundation and is no stranger to funding arts initiatives. In many ways, they feel it’s a responsibility.

“We should all work to keep the arts alive because they’re the reflection of a civilized and enlightened society,” Carl Thoma said. “We have seen scholars’ lives changed and improved through the fellowships, awards and grants we give through our foundation.

And no matter the viewer's background, art has an ability to speak across barriers. The arts are meant to be stimulating, not a point of stress, and it’s our duty to make that possible,” he said.

Maria Di Mento is a staff writer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy and reports regularly on the impact private giving has on the arts. She said philanthropy has played a critical role in the creation and sustainability of arts organizations for centuries.

“You could go back to the beginning of organized philanthropy in this country in the 1800s and see arts and cultural groups were being privately funded, even then,” she said. “It’s really important philanthropists are able to support the arts all over the country because there is never enough money for the local government or the federal government to keep programs funded. And the little bits of money earmarked for arts — it’s tiny, and not really enough to help [organizations] operate, let alone expand.”

Hours before The McKnight Center’s Opening Gala, media outlets had the opportunity to visit with Deborah Borda, New York Philharmonic CEO and president; Oscar Tang, board co-chairman; and Jaap van Zweden, New York Philharmonic music director, who were all seated before the glowing names in the Patron Lounge.

Discussing the role philanthropists play in funding the arts excited the famed conductor, who said artists have a moral obligation to share their craft with the world — and donors often allow that to happen.

“To feed everyone with art is to feed their souls,” Zweden said.

“It’s touching, really,” Borda said, praising the members of the Cowboy family who contributed to The McKnight Center.

Beyond Expectations

Tracie Chapman is one of 15 governor- appointed members of the Oklahoma Arts Council. She’s also a 1987 OSU alumna and a McKnight Center season ticket holder.

She seemed almost dazed after the New York Philharmonic concluded its Opening Gala concert with a surprise rendition of OSU’s alma mater.

“We’re so lucky to have this here. It was far and beyond my expectations,” she said. “I’m very proud. It’s the most amazing thing. Everyone in Oklahoma — no matter whether you graduated from OSU or any other college — should be proud this is in Oklahoma.”

While The McKnight Center and its world- class programming are sure to enhance retention and school pride, she said it is also reaffirming Oklahoma State’s deep roots in terms of philanthropy.

“I think the next generation needs to know philanthropy is the biggest part of Oklahoma State,” she said. “The Hargises have been a part of bringing this up, and we need to continue keeping that tradition going.”

John and Cheryl Clerico said they were proud of the collective legacy Patron donors were making by facilitating the $50 million programming endowment and the impressive opening of The McKnight Center.

“I’ve always tried to take what resources I’ve had and make the maximum impact with it,” John Clerico said. “I can’t think of anything that would contribute more than a transforming facility like The McKnight Center.”

From left: Carl Thoma, Ross McKnight and Marilynn Thoma during Saturday’s intermission in the Patrons Lounge at The McKnight Center.
From left: Carl Thoma, Ross McKnight and Marilynn Thoma during Saturday’s intermission in the Patrons Lounge at The McKnight Center.

Husband and wife Pat and Patricia “Pat” Cobb found students’ initial reactions to The McKnight Center moving.

“They are going to be the first to take advantage of it, and who knows where their influence will go when they leave here,” Mrs. Cobb said. “It makes you want to tell them to just go after your dream.”

Jonathan Drummond believed it was important that his family participate in benefiting The McKnight Center as well as the adjoining Michael and Anne Greenwood School of Music.

“This is a project we believe in,” he said. “We gave this gift as a family because I want my children to have this as their legacy as well.”

Many Patron donors said the leadership from the Hargises and the McKnights inspired their decision to get involved.

To Ross and Billie McKnight, the overall project was simply “collaborating among friends.”

“It was a lot of fun,” Billie McKnight said.

The goal was to do something as transformative for the university as T. Boone Pickens’ gift was to athletics, Ross McKnight said.

“It’s our desire that this will outlast all of us. Not just in physical buildings, because they wear out. But in the spirit of what we’ve done,” he said. “I hope people see what we are able to do with the arts, and it will grow to include a visual arts program or a museum program. We hope people see OSU differently because of it.”

President Burns Hargis said he was impressed by how the entire Cowboy family “caught the vision” for The McKnight Center and supporting the arts at OSU.

“There is no way we can express how grateful we are to everyone who has done so much to make this happen, especially Billie and Ross and all of the Patron donors,” he said. “Dreams do come true.”

Well Content

McKnight Center Patron Donors

  • Edward E. and Helen T. Bartlett Foundation
  • Lee M. and Harriet M. Brown Estate
  • Nickie and Doug Burns
  • Chickasaw Nation
  • Cheryl and John Clerico
  • Patricia and Patrick Cobb
  • Lerri and Rick Cooper
  • Jonathan Drummond Family Foundation
  • Monica and Joe Eastin
  • Anne and Mike Greenwood
  • Vickie and Joe Hall
  • Ann and Burns Hargis
  • Helen Hodges
  • Cathey and Don Humphreys
  • Inasmuch Foundation
  • Billie and Ross McKnight
  • Carol and Frank Morsani
  • Ludmilla and Frank Robson
  • Sherman E. Smith Family Foundation
  • LaRue and Bill Stoller
  • Julie and Russ Teubner
  • Marilynn and Carl Thoma
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