Wharton Center: Enriching Lives for 25 Years

A vibrant past

During the 1970s, MSU President Clifton Wharton and his wife, Dolores, described the arts as a humanizing, unifying force in our world, bringing people together across vast cultural, social, economic and geographic divisions.  Their desire to create a world-class performing arts center for the residents of Michigan became a reality in the fall of 1982.

Since the inaugural performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which returns as part of the 25th anniversary season, Wharton Center has become a dynamic and evolving cultural resource.  From Broadway blockbusters like Phantom of the Opera, Disney’s THE LION KING, and WICKED to world-renowned orchestras, dance companies, jazz ensembles and more, Wharton Center hosts an impressive line up of more than 100 performances each season, attracting patrons from throughout the state and region.

Beyond the stage

Today, Wharton Center is about much more than the performances that grace its stages.  Whether it’s the countless programs the integrate the arts and academics; or the engagement activities that take Wharton Center into the community; or unique programs like Seats 4 Kids, a scholarship fund providing tickets to economically disadvantaged children, a key part of Wharton Center’s mission is to enrich lives and strengthen the value of the arts in everyday life.

“Recent cuts in local, state and national funding have created a void in arts education,” said Michael Brand, Wharton Center’s executive director. “We’re able to help fill that void by integrating the arts into the academic experience and into people’s lives with a diverse array of programs.”

Programs such as the Act One School Series, Jazz Kats-Jazz For Kids, and Young Playwrights Festival integrate performing arts into the K-12 curriculum for more than 30,000 children each year.  Master classes, artist residencies and community engagement activities help ensure that the arts remain a relevant part of people’s lives, regardless of age and background.  Most recently, Wharton Center began a multi-year collaboration with the Stratford Festival of Canada, and in the coming years will host artist residencies with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, jazz vocalist Diane Reeves, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and others.

“Our residencies integrate the arts into a variety of study areas, not just music, theater and dance,” said Debra Gift, Wharton Center’s director of education.  “Collaborations with units throughout campus such as Honors College, James Madison; communication arts and sciences, education; and others, help demonstrate the relevance of the arts in a multitude of disciplines.”


According to Brand, all of this would not be possible without the community’s overwhelming support for the last two and half decades.  The majority of the center’s funding is derived from corporate sponsorships, private donations, ticket revenues and rental income, with less than 3 percent of its operating budget from the university.  In an average year, nearly 75 corporate sponsors and 2,500 private donors help underwrite Wharton Center’s initiatives.  Additionally, more than 350 individuals volunteer their time and talents in various capacities in an effort to serve the nonprofit organization.

“The center is,above all, a community-based, community-upported cultural resource for the people of Michigan,” said Brand.

Kent A. Love, APR is the director of communications for the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University.








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