Melissa Merli: Gunns join high-caliber list of donors to Krannert

Opera superstar Nathan Gunn, as most of us know, has sung in the major opera houses of the world.

During his travels, he said, he's seen nothing else on the planet like Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where he honed his baritone voice over four years as an undergraduate in the University of Illinois School of Music.

Krannert is one of three things that keep him and his wife, Julie, and their five children in town, he said. So to pay back, the Gunns have pledged a gift of $100,000 to the performing arts center.

The news of their gift, as well as major donations from two other couples and a medical doctor, came Thursday night during the center's 45th anniversary celebration for donors, on the Tryon Festival Theatre stage.

Director Mike Ross choked up when announcing the gift from the Gunns, so much so that his wife called out, "Don't cry, honey."

"This is an extraordinary gift," Ross said. "How many people do you know in those circumstances who would make a commitment to an institution enough to have their names appear in the Colwell Society?"

Ross called the Gunns beautiful advocates for the arts and fabulous people. Nathan in turn said what we have here is extraordinary, and that his gift is nothing compared to what he has been given by Krannert and the university.

The other gifts are from:

— Helen and James Farmer, who pledged $1 million from their estate. The Champaign residents came here from UCLA in 1974, not knowing exactly where C-U was located. They began attending events at Krannert and after retiring from the university in 1998 started taking in 30 to 35 performances a year.

"This is why we stay here," James Farmer said.

His son, a financial adviser, counseled the Farmers to make one big financial donation at this stage in their lives to something they cared about.

"Let your money be where your heart is," their son told them.

— Bloomington residents Carole and Jerry Ringer pledged $500,000. Including earlier gifts, they became members of the Foellinger Society, whose members pledge from $500,000 to $999,999.

Like the Farmers, the Ringers said they will remain in Bloomington after they retire; its proximity to Krannert means they don't have to spend a lot more money to drive to Chicago to see the same shows, Jerry said.

— Michael Swindle, an emergency room doctor, gave an estate gift enough to make him a member of the Colwell Society, whose members donate or pledge $100,000 to $499,999.

"This is a community treasure and we should all enjoy it and love it," Swindle said.

With its 45th anniversary this month, Krannert is stepping up efforts to raise money over the next five years to shore up Krannert's resources to help carry out its mission, said Krannert's development director, Deborah Miller.

The money raised will go toward programs, to help create new works in the performing arts, to revitalize and enhance the building and to nourish, through Krannert education programs, tomorrow's leaders, Miller said.

To persuade people to give in any amount, Krannert Center will create a Legacy Society. It will honor anyone who bequests any amount and is willing to be recognized rather than remain anonymous.

(I plan to join that society — if my 401(k) doesn't go south in the next few decades!)

Krannert Center, where I spend a lot of time that I consider well-spent, opened in 1969 as a result of a major gift from Herman and Ellnora Krannert — Herman was a UI engineering alumnus.

They gave $16 million initially. The university "squeezed" another $4 million to $5 million from the couple to build the center, Ross said.

The total cost was around $21 million, possibly more — the exact figure is buried somewhere in the UI archives.

Constructing the same exact facility today would cost $300 million, Ross said — to gasps from many in the donor audience.

"It was driven by a passion that ran deep," he said of the Krannerts' gift.

He also related a funny anecdote about the donation. Asked by the UI engineering dean at the time why he'd given such a large amount to the arts, Herman Krannert replied, "Engineers need the arts more than they need another lab."

I think I would have liked Herman Krannert.

The model

To inspire people to give, Krannert Center installed in its lobby a week or so ago a scale architecture model — I heard one woman call it a diorama — of the center.

Besides showing off architect Max Abramovitz's "acropolis on the prairie" to great effect, the detailed model includes grass, trees, miniature people and cars.

It's really amazing and fun to peruse.

Nicholas Berchtold, a recent UI architecture graduate, spent 500 hours building it. You can stand on a surround podium to peer down at the miniature Krannert. Or you can look up: hanging from the ceiling above the large display is a large mirror.

Krannert lit up the model and filled three glass cases nearby with memorabilia from the center's early years. Interesting.

A party

Krannert patrons who are not among donors were treated Thursday night to a 45th anniversary celebration of fruit punch, champagne, cupcakes from Cream & Flutter and fruit from Edible Arrangements.

The food and drinks, neatly laid out on tables in the lobby, greeted patrons as they left the Great Hall, after the Pinchas Zukerman-Yefin Bronfman concert.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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