The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University will be a world-class epicenter for the arts, attracting celebrated national and international programs featuring notable performing arts productions and artists. The center will allow the university and the center’s supporters to express — and be recognized for — their passion for the arts on a global stage.


From Broadway shows to internationally acclaimed symphonies and concerts spotlighting Oklahoma musicians, The McKnight Center will create new experiences for everyone.


The McKnight Center will impact education throughout the local and regional communities as well as the Stillwater campus. With increased access to the arts, people will see life and learning through a different lens.


To put it simply, The McKnight Center is going to change everything. The center will become an expression of who we are and the value we place on the performing arts.


Now Featuring
New York Philharmonic

STILLWATER, Okla., September 30, 2016 – Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the New York Philharmonic have announced a residency partnership marking the opening of the new McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at OSU in October, 2019. The partnership is made possible in part by the visionary $25 million programming gift to OSU by alumni Billie and Ross McKnight. The McKnights’ gift established a program endowment to benefit all students, faculty and the Stillwater community by bringing top-tier residency programs and performances to OSU.


In addition to multiple New York Philharmonic performances at the McKnight Center conducted by future New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden, the residency partnership will include educational opportunities for OSU students with Philharmonic musicians and management, such as masterclasses, audition workshops and lectures. Every season the Philharmonic reaches millions of people through concerts at Lincoln Center in New York, worldwide tours, educational activities and outreach. The partnership with OSU adds to the Philharmonic’s growing list of educational partnerships throughout the U.S. and world, which includes the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan and New York Philharmonic Global Academy partnerships with Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West, The Shepherd School at Rice University and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

“This expansive partnership presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our music faculty and students to interact with and be inspired by members of one of the world’s greatest orchestras,” commented Burns Hargis, president of OSU. “I am especially pleased to announce this partnership on the eve of the groundbreaking of the new McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State. I am confident we are well on our way to establishing a vital hub of creativity and collaboration for the performing arts in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Thanks to Billie and Ross McKnight’s generosity and forward-thinking leadership, learning experiences and the arts will be elevated in our community and region.”

New York Philharmonic
Credit: Chris Lee

“We salute Oklahoma State University, under the leadership of President Hargis, and the McKnights for their vision and generosity that will bring the New York Philharmonic to OSU to help launch this ambitious initiative and make the arts more central to the campus,” commented Matthew VanBesien, president of the New York Philharmonic. “While we often hear how residency partnerships benefit faculty, students and the regional community, I can say from experience that the musicians and management of the New York Philharmonic also benefit immensely from the creative energy stemming from academic and professional collaboration. We very much look forward to performing at what promises to be a spectacular new performing arts center and to engaging with the university and the community in Stillwater.”

The new partnership will be celebrated at tomorrow’s groundbreaking event featuring President Hargis, the McKnights, VanBesien and student performers from the Department of Music. The celebration will continue during a special halftime performance at the OSU vs. Texas football game in Boone Pickens Stadium. The program will feature a special tribute by The Cowboy Marching Band.

“Billie and I are thrilled that the new performing arts center will serve as a stage for global talent and will bring OSU students unique culturally enriching opportunities,” said Ross McKnight. “We believe in The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts, and the partnership with the New York Philharmonic validates the caliber of programming that will truly make the center great.”

The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts will be one of Oklahoma’s premier cultural institutions, creating an environment for artistic expression that allows Oklahoma State and the Stillwater community to express — and be recognized for — their passion for the arts on a global stage. The performing arts center 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.

New York Philharmonic
Credit: Chris Lee

The 93,000-square-foot McKnight Center for the Performing Arts will include an acoustically perfected 1,100-seat performance hall, 222-seat recital hall and an outdoor amphitheater with a large viewing screen for broadcasting performances in the hall as well as other performances from anywhere else in the world. It will also include a new home for the Department of Music and its masterclass curriculum, teaching studios for one-on-one lessons and ensemble rooms for small or large groups. These spaces will be engineered with the latest acoustics and technology for instruction, practice and performance.

“The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts sets the foundation to invite world-class musicians and artists to Stillwater, Oklahoma,” said Dr. Howard Potter, professor and head of the Department of Music in Oklahoma State University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. “The residency program with the New York Philharmonic begins a new era for performing arts at our school and in our state.”

“Students benefit mightily through access to rich educational opportunities, and this new partnership with the New York Philharmonic is just that,” said President Hargis. “This partnership announcement with the New York Philharmonic and the groundbreaking of The McKnight Center is a testament to the university’s commitment to education and cultural experience for our students and the greater Oklahoma community.”


Mark A. Blakeman

Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University

Mark A. Blakeman was announced as the inaugural Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University in March 2017. He brings to the position vast knowledge and direct experience overseeing large-scale construction projects, building programs and raising philanthropic support.

He 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, operational and strategic planning, outreach and education, 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.

Blakeman was appointed President and CEO of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in 2014, bringing more than eighteen years of performing arts and arts education experience to this leadership position. In his first year, he expanded the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s community partnerships, broadened its appeal through the creation of a new Family Series for the 2015-16 season and joined his colleagues in the arts community to advocate for a bond issue that would, among many other benefits, improve the Tucson Music Hall where the orchestra performs. 

Blakeman came to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra after more than fifteen years with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. During his Nashville tenure, he served in a number of leadership roles, including as Chief Operating Officer. Under his leadership, the Nashville Symphony achieved a 26 percent growth in ticket sales, an increase of nearly 70 percent in contributed income, and record-breaking earned revenues in ancillary businesses. 

Blakeman’s extensive experience in electronic media work includes overseeing more than 25 commercial recording projects, which garnered seven GRAMMY Awards®, and more than ten national telecasts resulting in two regional Emmy nominations and one Emmy Award. 

Prior to Nashville, Blakeman worked at Oklahoma City University’s Bass School of Music as the Director of Student Services and as Director of the Performing Arts Academy, the school’s preparatory community music school. He served as an adjunct instructor at both Oklahoma City University and Middle Tennessee State University, teaching coursework in acoustics, survey of American popular music and orchestral music and management. He has served as a clinician at the Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas all-state music conferences, lecturing on concert production and artist engagement. 

Blakeman holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Business from Middle Tennessee State University and a Master of Business Administration in Arts Administration from Oklahoma City University. In 2008, he was recognized as a distinguished alumnus of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communications. He is originally from Moore, Oklahoma.


Marilynn and Carl Thoma

OSU alumni Marilynn and Carl Thoma believe art enriches lives. Through a $5 million gift, these passionate art supporters created the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director position at The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at OSU. The couple established the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation in 1986 to fulfill their broad passion for philanthropy.

Carl Thoma is managing partner and founder of Thoma Bravo, a leading private equity investment firm. Marilynn Thoma oversees the marketing of Van Duzer Vineyards, an 80-acre estate Pinot Noir winery in Oregon that the Thomas founded in 1998. They have supported many needs at OSU, including the Learning and Student Success Opportunity Center and the OSU Museum of Art. They also helped establish the Wine Forum, the Marilynn Thoma Chair in Human Sciences, and the Carl Thoma Distinguished Clinical Professorships in Entrepreneurship.

They have both received OSU’s highest honor, as they were inducted into the OSU Alumni Association Hall of Fame in 2010. Previously, Carl Thoma was inducted into the Spears School of Business Hall of Fame in 1996 and received the OSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002. Marilynn Thoma was honored with the Human Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004, the Women for OSU Philanthropist of the Year recognition in 2009, and will be inducted into the Human Sciences Hall of Fame in April 2017.


The McKnight Foundation exists to manage and operate The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Construction of The McKnight Center has begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2019. The McKnight Foundation is governed by a seven-member board of trustees and an executive director. The foundation will be engaged for the operation and programming of The McKnight Center. An aggressive fundraising campaign is underway to supplement construction costs and complete the innovative programming endowment.


Billie & Ross McKnight

Billie and Ross McKnight are entrepreneurs, philanthropists and performing art patrons who for years have invested their time and energy in Oklahoma State University. From 2007 to 2014, they co-chaired OSU’s Branding Success campaign, which raised $1.2 billion. One of the campaign’s largest gifts was the couple’s $10 million donation to establish the McKnight Scholars Leadership Program in 2010. It provides scholarships and unique leadership-development opportunities for 50 out-of-state students each year. Ross co-chaired the Next Level Campaign, which raised more than $100 million for Oklahoma State’s football stadium expansion project.

In 2016, the McKnights donated $25 million to create a program endowment for The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at OSU. The couple has been directly involved in the progress of the project, helping recruit a dedicated group of Patron donors who have given $1 million or more to the center. They were also critical to the creation of OSU’s partnership with The New York Philharmonic, which will be performing during The McKnight Center’s opening week and working with students in masterclasses. Both attribute childhood introductions to music and Broadway for their love of the performing arts.

The McKnights met while students at Oklahoma State in 1970, while Ross was an animal science senior and Billie was a freshman working toward a degree in business administration. They built their home in Throckmorton with extremely successful careers in ranching, oil and gas, and banking. They have two grown children, Trent and Meggan, who are third-generation OSU alumni.

Both Billie and Ross have been recognized throughout campus for the impact they’ve made at OSU. Billie was named Women for Oklahoma State University’s Philanthropist of the Year in 2015. Ross was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1996, a Graduate of Distinction of the Department of Animal Science in 1998, and the Animal Science Distinguished Alumni 2014.