Thoma: Meet an Art-Collecting Couple Committed to Visual Arts

The Blanton Museum of art in Austin is one of the beneficiaries of Thoma Giving. Photo: MaxyM/shutterstock

The Blanton Museum of art in Austin is one of the beneficiaries of Thoma Giving. Photo: MaxyM/shutterstock

I've written before about the philanthropy of Bruce Rauner and his wife Diana. Rauner, a private equity veteran and former chairman of Chicago-based GTCR, is currently the governor of Illinois. The Rauners are strongly interested in education philanthropy, pumping millions into charters, advocacy organizations and more, in Chicagoland and beyond.

Then there's Carl Thoma, the "T" in GTCR. Thoma grew up in the Oklahoma Panhandle, earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University and went to Stanford Business School. His wife Marilynn also graduated from Oklahoma State and received her MBA from Stanford, as well. Thoma is currently a managing partner of  Thoma Bravo.

On the philanthropic end, the couple established the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation, through which they've steadily supported education (particularly higher education) and the arts for decades. Via the foundation, Thoma and Marilynn have supported places like the Art Institute of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Chicago Humanities Festival, Stanford University, and Oklahoma State University.

More recently, the couple established the Thoma Art Foundation to focus exclusively on visual arts. I recently spoke with Thoma Art Foundation Communications Director Robin Day to find out more about the art foundation and about the couple's interest in the arts through the years. 

The Thomas have been collecting art since the 1970s, and showcase their collection in exhibition spaces in Santa Fe (where they've also taken up residence), Chicago, and in venues around the world. As Carl Thoma puts it, "Our feeling is, if art is presented in the right way, it can stimulate the mind... it's a good way to force people to communicate, and it creates new perspectives on the world."

Thoma and Marilynn established their family foundation in the 1986. The Thoma Art Foundation, meanwhile, kicked off in 2015 to focus primarily on the visual arts. Their collection has about 1000 works of art and counting. Thoma and Marilynn are interested personally in four broad fields. Thoma is into digital and electronic art, and Marilynn is mostly keen on Spanish colonial. They also collect Japanese bamboo and postwar painting and sculpture. Works include José Campeche's "Portrait of a Woman in Mourning," Honma Hideaki's "Sign of Wind – Waves," and Nam June Paik's "TV Fish."

    “I like that it's using today's knowledge and creating something beautiful and engaging,” Thoma has said of his interest in digital and “electroluminescent” art, which uses light to show images.

    The Thoma Art Foundation was established to focus on these four fields and advancing scholarship in these main areas of interest. The foundation supports academic programs, exhibitions, lectures, symposia and publications that provide promising new insights into the fields of art in which the Thomas are interested. The art foundation recently gave a three-year $300,000 gift to Austin's Blanton Museum of Art toward an endowed associate curator of Spanish Colonial art. Other recent grantees include a two-year, $201,000 grant to Rhizome to support Net Art Anthology, and a $100,000 grant to LACMA. 

    The foundation also runs the Arts Writing Award in Digital Art, given both to an established arts writer ($40,000) and an emerging arts writer ($20,000), and the Research Fellowship in Twentieth-Century Abstract Painting, which "provides an emerging scholar unique access to a diverse collection of mid-twentieth century abstract, geometric painting for the purpose of pursuing an independent research project." In 2017, SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling received the established arts writer award.

    When I asked Robin what the foundation looks for in its awardees, she told me that they are really interested in "advancing scholarship" in the Thomas' select fields of interest. Those who are "breaking new ground, conducting new research and presenting their field in a new and different way to the public" will have a leg up with Thoma. Robin also says that the foundation is putting together an award similar to the Arts Writing Award for Spanish Colonial research.

    Yearly, the Thoma Family Foundation and the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation make grants in the total amount of $5 million. The Thoma Art Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals from individuals (those awards are by nomination or have specific open calls), but does accept unsolicited proposals from organizations.

    Related: Meet An Influential Chicago Couple Digging Into Education Reform