'It’s like Christmas Eve': Devoted donors make The McKnight Center a reality

McKnight Center for the Performing Arts

Oklahoma State University held a ground breaking Saturday for McKnight Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 2, 2016.

At the corner of Hester and University sits the newly completed McKnight Center, a cultural and architectural feat entirely unachievable without the donations of devoted Oklahoma State alumni.

OSU donor Anne Greenwood has been waiting for the grand opening of The McKnight Center for almost six years.

“It’s like Christmas Eve,” Greenwood said. “I fully expect to cry through everything.”

The 93,000-square-foot theater boasts professionally designed acoustics, making each of the 1,098 seats the best seat in the house. Staggering glass windows complement the classic “modified Georgian” architecture mirrored across campus, and a 32-foot outdoor video board allows students and citizens to enjoy the musical arts regardless of whether they can afford to attend. 

The construction of this state-of-the-art theater would not have been feasible without a $25 million donation from Ross and Billie McKnight, the venue's namesakes.

“We both have a passion for music,” Billie McKnight said. “We wanted to share that by fulfilling the vision of the performing arts center and expanding the number and type of cultural opportunities available at Oklahoma State through world-class performances and educational experiences. It was all about a vision that would provide wonderful opportunities for Oklahoma and OSU.”

Ross and Billie McKnight met on campus in 1971 when Ross judged the Freshman Queen contest. Although Billie did not win the competition, it was the first step in the rest of their lives, much of which have been colored by a deep passion for OSU.

The pair co-chaired OSU’s Branding Success campaign that raised $1.2 billon for the university, and the McKnights have remained extremely involved in the development of campus.

“Oklahoma State University has been a central theme in our life’s story, so it’s very meaningful to be able to give back in the way that we are,” Ross McKnight said.

The McKnights' donation along with a $15 million contribution from Frank and Carol Morsani and additional donations are ultimately what turned the dream of a world-class performing arts center in Stillwater into a reality.

Saturday marks the grand opening of The McKnight Center, and to match the prestige surrounding its opening, the inaugural performance will be none other than the New York Philharmonic.

“They’re really coming,” Greenwood said. “And not only that, but they’re giving back to our college students, our elementary students.”

In conjunction with the inaugural performance, The New York Philharmonic will host masterclass workshops for talented music students and will perform a show exclusively for Stillwater’s first and second graders. Both events are intended to invest back in the youth and inspire a passionate pursuit of music in their lives.

Ross McKnight spoke on the future cultural implications of The McKnight Center on Stillwater, OSU and its students.

“It is exciting to see how The McKnight Center will enable students at Oklahoma State to achieve their fullest potential by interacting and learning from some of the finest artists in the world,” Ross McKnight said. “It will serve as a stage for global talent and will bring OSU students unique, culturally enriching opportunities and will provide enjoyment for many generations of Oklahoma citizens and Oklahoma State supporters.”

The donors that funded this dream are not only financially invested in OSU. Just like the McKnights, the Greenwoods met on campus and are committed to making a tangible difference in the lives of their student successors in Stillwater.

“It is truly unbelievable to me to have been a part of this five or six years ago in its infancy,” Greenwood said. “(T. Boone Pickens) made us not afraid to dream big.”

After Pickens’ death in September, donors such as the Greenwoods have come forward to speak about the impact Pickens had in their lives and how he inspired them to donate. Boone Pickens Stadium, Greenwood Tennis Center and The McKnight Center are recent results of the push to invest back in OSU.

The dream for the arts does not end with The McKnight Center. The Greenwood School of Music is set to open in January 2021, providing an educational complement to The McKnight Center’s performance venue component.

“What we do is step up when we’re pretty sure nothing will happen if we don’t step up,” Greenwood said. “We stepped up with the hope that others would join.”

The initiative of donors has paid off, and the long-awaited grand opening of the McKnight Center is proof. Like Ross and Billie McKnight and many other donors, Anne Greenwood is ecstatic to finally hear the New York Philharmonic perform in the McKnight Center.

“This night of celebration and arts," Greenwood said, "it's truly a dream come true."