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Clifton & Dolores Wharton

Their vision brought our performing arts center to life

“Any university worthy of being called great needed a rich foundation in the arts—physical no less than intellectual,” Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr. wrote in his memoir, Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer. “At MSU, the former was long overdue,” he concluded.

Dr. Wharton became president of Michigan State University in 1970. Wharton and his wife, Dolores, came to campus with a deep appreciation for the arts.

Dr. Wharton studied piano from age 4 through 18. His father’s career in the foreign service meant that Wharton lived and traveled around the world as a youth, exposing him to a vast array of art and artists. His international travels continued into his adult life.

Dolores also grew up with a love for the arts. Born in New York City, she studied dance with Martha Graham and theater at the Neighborhood Playhouse conservatory. As MSU’s first lady, she made it her mission to publicize art created by university faculty, displaying it proudly in Cowles House. President Gerald R. Ford appointed her to the National Council on the Arts in 1971, and she served on the Michigan Council on the Arts under Gov. William Milliken.

I have found the arts—visual and performing—a natural trajectory for learning about the aesthetic values of the communities where I have lived—U.S. and foreign

Dolores Wharton

When the Whartons arrived on campus, the MSU Auditorium was the primary performance venue. Even then, it was widely considered to be outdated and insufficient to host world-class artists. The auditorium had been the home of performing arts on campus since 1939. Originally constructed as a multi-use facility, the space also needed to host college dances, commencements, speakers, and the Farmers’ Weekconvention. That made it slightly less hospitable to performers, in particular those such as violinist Jascha Heifetz, soprano Beverly Sills and the Berlin Philharmonic.

“We felt very strongly—Dolores in particular—that we needed to have a new facility,” Dr. Wharton said in a 2009 interview with MSU Today.

Dr. Wharton hired the university’s first development officer, and launched MSU’s first major capital campaign. A component of the fundraising campaign was devoted to the creation of a performing arts center. The plan was to raise $11 million for its construction.

Before the campaign went public, Dr. and Mrs. Wharton visited with student and faculty organizations and administrator groups on campus with the goal of raising $500,000 to demonstrate the university’s investment in a performing arts center.

They raised more than $1 million. The excitement was there.

On April 19, 1975, the public portion of the campaign was launched with a gala benefit concert featuring Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. It was to be held in the MSU Auditorium—the same outdated venue they sought to replace.

“Lena Horne and her music director were trying out the building’s acoustics,” Dr. Wharton wrote in his memoir. “After running through a few trills and arpeggios from different areas of the stage, Horne remarked dryly that she could understand why we wanted to build a new facility.” But Horne and Bennett never performed in the MSU Auditorium. A massive spring rainstorm pushed the banks of the Red Cedar over its limits, flooding the auditorium’s basement and knocking out its power.

The concert was quickly moved to the recently completed Munn Ice Arena. In one afternoon, a stage was constructed over the ice, and the sold-out show raised nearly $90,000, thanks in part to being underwritten with $40,000 from professional fees donated by Dr. Wharton.

The campaign was underway.