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Oklahoma State University

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts


OSU alumni set stage for performing arts center with transformational gift

By Amanda O'Toole Mason

Billie and Ross McKnight came to love and support the performing arts from two completely different perspectives. Billie grew up embracing music, playing the piano from an early age and later mastering the flute; she passed on this love of music by encouraging her children in violin, piano, flute and saxophone, as well as taking them to theatre productions near and far.

Nine-year-old Ross, on the other hand, attended a Broadway production with his family in 1957 after traveling to New York City to watch Hank Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves take on Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra with the New York Yankees in the World Series.

While the Series traveled to Milwaukee, the family took in the sights of the city, and McKnight found himself watching Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, an up-and coming Broadway show.

“I don’t remember what I thought about going to my first Broadway show, but I was overwhelmed after the overture,” says Ross McKnight.

The Yankees lost the Series, but the arts gained a patron.

Nearly 60 years after Billie first played the piano and My Fair Lady debuted on Broadway, the McKnights appeared on stage at the Seretean Center with OSU President Burns Hargis. Bookended by award-winning trumpeters and a cellist, Ross and Billie announced to the world via live broadcast that they were giving $25 million to Oklahoma State to create a program endowment for the new performing arts center.

The center was announced in 2014 with performances by alumna and opera star Sarah Coburn as well as students from the Departments of Music and Theatre.

The 93,000-square-foot building will be named The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University in recognition of the couple’s gift.

The McKnights’ generosity complements a number of donations to the performing arts center, including a $15 million maintenance and operations gift from philanthropists and OSU alumni Frank and Carol Morsani.

The program endowment ensures The McKnight Center always has the funds available to host top-tier performances unique in this region.

“There will be many Broadway plays, orchestras, symphonies, operas, ballets, dance — all different genres of performing art we hope to bring to Oklahoma State,” says Billie.

When the couple first heard President Burns Hargis’ vision for the performing arts center nearly four years ago, they knew they wanted to be involved in a big way.

“We wanted this to be transformational, and we realized there was not a population to supply the support for this type of programming in Stillwater, based on ticket sales alone,” says Ross. “We knew if we endowed the programming, it would benefit all of the students who attend OSU — not just the students within the music and theatre departments — as well as the town of Stillwater, and I think the state of Oklahoma. OSU will forever be looked at differently when it attracts the types of world-class arts we’d like to bring in.”

Combined with the McKnights’ gift, OSU hopes to raise at least an additional $25 million, increasing the endowment to $50 million, generating $2.5 million annually for programming. The university is already in discussion with an international philharmonic, a partnership that will be made possible by the endowment.

“If the McKnight Center were built today, we’d bring in Hamilton. We’d be partnering with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra,” Ross says. “You bring the New York Philharmonic here, and it will blow people away.”

President Hargis says The McKnight Center will elevate the persona of the entire university and demonstrate OSU’s commitment to the arts.

“Oklahoma State has always had great arts programs; they just have not had the promotion, support or facilities to reach their potential,” he says. “The new facility and the incredible programming will put OSU on the map with a prominence we haven’t had.”

Through the creation of the Postal Plaza Gallery in downtown Stillwater, campus beautification, and even the introduction of the Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos, New Mexico, Hargis has worked diligently to support an arts renaissance at OSU.

The result has been, and will continue to be, a well-rounded education and better quality of life for students at OSU and families who call Stillwater home.

Formerly involved in the Metropolitan Area Projects in Oklahoma City, Hargis says access to the arts is important and helps create an environment for success. MAPS, which funded the creation of the Bricktown Canal, Bricktown Ballpark and recreational activities along the Oklahoma River among many other feats, demonstrates what a difference such features can mean to a community.

“I learned a long time ago with MAPS in Oklahoma City that amenities are not amenities. They are necessities,” he says. “Quality of life has a lot to do with an upward trajectory of a community. This project will do just that.”

It will also elevate OSU’s School of Visual and Performing Arts as students, especially in music and theatre, will be able to play alongside today’s best artists and attend master classes.

“In every creative field, and especially in music, so much of what we do is about mentorship,” says Bree Ahern, a national finalist for the 2014 Teachers National Association Solo Competition, who played onstage during the McKnights’ announcement. “To imagine these world-class artists coming in and being able to work with us on a really individual level will completely transform the program in a really positive way.”

Trumpet sophomore Kevin Kamau says it will revolutionize Oklahoma State University and the Department of Music.

“Learning from somebody who has won a job, who has gotten into the best grad schools, to learn from the best, to learn from someone who is currently playing — it would just be incredible,” he says. “With this gift, it’s really going to change everything we do here — how we go about recruiting, how we go about attracting people from the community to music and the performing arts in general. It’s going to change everything for the better.”

Interim Department of Music Head and associate professor of double bass George Speed is eager to witness the transformation of Stillwater firsthand, calling it “phenomenal.”


“For me, for the students, to have the ability to see the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony or the Cleveland Orchestra right around the corner, that’s really incredible,” says Speed, who is also the principal bass player for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. “It is really going to bring the college and the town together in a unique way. People will of course be in awe of the new facility, but it will feel accessible to students even though they may never have heard a concert before in their lives. It will be a great blend of accessibility and high culture.”

The vision for the performance endowment mirrors the exceptionally high standards that are being established with the construction and creation of The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts. Construction is expected to begin this fall. Everything within the building will be acoustically perfected by the top architects and engineers specializing in performing art centers around the world.

Oklahoma City-based architects from Beck Designs are collaborating with experts from PEI Cobb Freed & Partners; Kirkegaard; Cosentini; Schuler Shook and Walter P. Moore.

The companies’ work includes the upcoming renovation of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, the Opera House in Boston, Dallas City Performance Hall and the New World Symphony in Miami, to name a few.

Enhanced technology will set the center apart.

Digital screens will create an immersive experience, infusing sounds, colors and energy throughout the main performance hall. Tuning capabilities will allow for adjustments and fine tuning the acoustics within moments as a performance moves from the entire orchestra to a single instrument focus.

Performances can be telecast to a giant LED screen in the outdoor plaza from inside the performance hall or from any stage around the globe. The space will be able to host a variety of other events, possibly even gameday experiences.

“The space we’re getting for the halls, at their core, are just huge classrooms — huge, exciting classrooms where magnificence can happen,” Speed says. “They will be places where performing students can train how they listen, how to produce sound and improve on its quality, how they blend their sound. It’s transformative for our students.”

A new home for the Department of Music will be added onto The McKnight Center in a seamless fashion, adding much needed practice spaces and adequate teaching environments befitting a state-of-the-art performance venue. The demand for music education has never been greater at OSU with students learning from sought-after singers, famous composers and musical theorists that comprise the music faculty. OSU students consistently place highly in musical competitions, including a trumpet ensemble that has won first place three consecutive years at the National Trumpet Competition.

“The beauty of our programs is that we’re not guessing if we can be a great school of the fine arts — we already have great talent here,” Hargis says. “We have wonderful faculty, great students. … You can see how they could blossom if you build something around them that allows them to maximize their potential.”

Hargis is hopeful others will think so as well and join him and the McKnights as OSU makes their impressive vision come to life. They are working with other passionate OSU supporters and arts leaders and hope the entire Cowboy family will help reach the remaining $25 million fundraising goal.

“The performing arts serve the entire university, the entire community, and in some respects the state of Oklahoma,” Hargis says. “This is a chance for people to participate in something that not only benefits the university, but can benefit them and their experiences here. They also have the chance to elevate the entire reputation of Oklahoma State University.”

News of the project has been incredibly well received with thousands of tweets and posts following the McKnights’ gift announcement.

But, Hargis is quick to point out, OSU has a long way to go before the project is complete. The work, however, will be worth it.

“Music is very important to me. It speaks both to the intellect and the soul,” he says. “I think music is important to almost everybody because it makes you grow. And who knows, you may stumble over something you really love.”

Both Ross and Billie McKnight did.




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Uploaded on May 1, 2016