Carl D. Thoma is the founder and a managing partner of Thoma Bravo, LLC, a private equity firm with offices in Chicago and San Francisco. Marilynn J. Thoma is an active art collector with a background in marketing and brand management and has served on the boards of many art institutions and nonprofit organizations. Both Carl and Marilynn received a BA from Oklahoma State University and an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. The Thomas live in Chicago and Santa Fe.
In 1986 the Thomas established a family foundation—the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation—as a vehicle to support innovative people and organizations that make a difference and, over time, have the potential to become change-makers and exemplars of excellence—a model drawn from the Thoma Bravo experience.
In 2014 the Thomas founded the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation to distinguish their initiatives in and support of the visual arts. The Thomas hold a strong belief that the arts play a seminal role in society, and the establishment of an arts-specific foundation allowed them to be secure in the knowledge that their passion in this area would be sustained for decades to come.
Carl Thoma attributes their shared philanthropic ideology to the promise of the power of initiatives that exist at the intersection of art and entrepreneurship. He explains: “We want to deploy our Foundation assets in the furtherance of entrepreneurial leadership and thinking, especially to those who are efficiently enhancing society. As our mission statement expresses, our strong feeling is that art can serve as inspirational enlightenment to allow one to do greater things.”
Also in 2014, the Foundation opened two intimate art spaces: Orange Door in Chicago and Art House in Santa Fe.
Orange Door, a warehouse and private exhibition venue in West Town neighborhood of Chicago, is the nexus for the majority of the Foundation’s collection. Orange Door showcases an annually curated exhibition of recent acquisitions and collection highlights, and it is dedicated to introducing students and curators to new ideas by tracing connections across the Foundation’s collections.
Art House, located in a late 1800s adobe building in Santa Fe, was the only digital art collection open to the public in the American Southwest—and one of very few in the United States. Art House is the location for our administrative offices.
Art Vault, the Foundation’s newest exhibition space opening in 2021. Located in the heart of the Santa Fe Railyard Arts District, our 3,500 square foot gallery is the only digital art collection open to the public in the Southwest, and one of very few in the United States. Featured are algorithmic, interactive, immersive, and virtual works of art from the Foundation’s collection.
Though Santa Fe is primarily known for its traditional and historic art forms, its relationship with the arts has always been one of radical modernity. From the Taos Society (the first artist colony in the United States outside of New York) to early modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe who considered the idyllic high desert landscape home, New Mexico has long inspired creativity and encouraged innovation. Art Vault carries on this tradition by providing the opportunity for the public to experience the most important modern and contemporary ideas at the intersection of art and technology. Education is a staple of Art Vault’s mission, and school groups, students, and interested visitors are encouraged to schedule a tailored tour led by Foundation staff.
In 2021 the Foundation was re-named to more broadly reflect expanded efforts and initiatives. The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation philanthropic reach extends beyond the artworld to strengthen community, leadership, and education initiatives in under-resourced and rural areas.
The Thomas have been collecting art since 1975, starting with the Taos Society of Artists and the California Impressionists. In 1980 Carl further diversified the collection by focusing on modern and contemporary paintings, specifically mid-century global abstract and geometric art centered around the years 1950–79 and the major movements of that period. In 1995, after an encounter with five historic paintings at a gallery in Santa Fe, Marilynn began to build a collection of art of the Spanish Americas; driven by research and discovery, this collection has become world renowned for its scholarly impact on the understanding of the visual culture of the Spanish empire in South America. In 2009, Carl turned his attention to digital and electronic art, developing a pioneering collection that features artistic innovations in technology-based art from the past sixty years and is one of the most extensive of its kind in North America. In 2011, the Thomas began to collect Japanese bamboo art, focusing primarily on contemporary nonfunctional basketry.
Today, the Foundation’s collection reflects the Thoma family’s interest in diverse art forms, from contemporary digital art and modern Color Field paintings to art of the Spanish Americas and Japanese basketry. The Foundation has active acquisition and loan programs. To date, works from the collection—which includes more than 1,600 objects—have been lent to over 165 exhibitions worldwide.
By sharing these collections, the Foundation aims to facilitate engagement with art that challenges perceptions and provides an opportunity to imagine the world anew.
This collection provides insight into the melding of cultures, the colonial resonance, and the artistic style forged by the interaction of Andean cultures and the Spanish empire over hundreds of years. This prominent collection includes over 165 historic artworks that capture the expressions and intertwined history of European and Andean cultures. The first major exhibition centered on works from this collection—titled Virgin, Saints and Angels—was organized by Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts and went on to tour six international venues from 2006 to 2008. Other collection highlights include exhibitions Reverence Renewed: Colonial Andean Art from the Thoma Collection, DePaul Art Museum, 2008; Spanish Colonial Masterpieces from the Thoma Collection, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2017 and 2018; and From the Andes and the West Indies: Spanish Colonial Paintings from the Thoma Collection, Frost Museum, forthcoming. Paintings from this collection have been lent to 27 exhibitions and have been published extensively.
This pioneering collection spans the global history of computer art throughout the past sixty years, representing artistic innovations across the field. Carl Thoma’s background in investing in technology drove him to deeply consider the role of generative and digital processes in the evolution of creativity. Thus, the Foundation’s digital art collection encourages a greater understanding of the art and media of modern cultures and shares Thoma’s interest in systematic approaches, scientific thinking, and new technologies. The collection champions several categories of digital and electronic art: early computer drawings, generative art (real-time software processing), time-based art, light sculpture, digital and mixed media sculpture, prints, photography, textiles, film, and video. This collection of nearly 300 works of art is among the largest collections of its kind in private hands in the world.
Though the oldest artwork in this collection dates to the 1850s, the majority of its more than 230 objects are post-war and contemporary bamboo baskets that played an important role in expanding the field to a more abstract, less literal practice. In particular, this collection traces the continuum of the creation of offering trays—one of the most difficult and advanced objects to create in the temperamental material. The Foundation’s collection of contemporary Japanese bamboo flower trays is the strongest of its kind in America, and likely the world. Despite the medium traditionally being dominated by men, women artists have made an impact on the field and each of the six major woman bamboo artist is represented in this collection. Since the art form’s abstract movement began in the mid-1900s, six Japanese bamboo artists have been awarded the status of Living National Treasure—all but one of whom are included in the collection.
The collection of post-war painting and sculpture highlights new forms of color-based abstraction developed from 1950–79, mostly in the United States. Major movements of that period highlighted in the collection include California Hard-Edge, Washington Color School, Light and Space, Color Field, shaped canvas, and a nearly comprehensive representation of artists featured in The Responsive Eye, MoMa’s landmark 1965 exhibition of Op art, in addition to strong holdings of South American Op. Numbering over 140 artworks, the mid-century collection is united by bold colors and strong geometry. An overarching goal of this collection is to challenge observers to reflect on their unique gaze and individual relationship with the art, as well as encourage questions of what it means to see.
The Foundation provides financial support to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations whose projects advance scholarship in fields of art collected by the Foundation and will leave a lasting impact. The Foundation supports exhibitions, publications and catalogues, scholarly convenings, and fellowships. The Foundation aims to support programs in their earliest stages where significant seed funds are critical to the endeavor. Since the founding of their first Foundation, the Thomas have provided over $23 million in grants, gifts, and awards to arts-focused organizations and individuals. The Foundation will be the beneficiary of 80% of their net worth.
In 2019 the Foundation launched Bold Initiatives, a matching grant program that provided seed capital to aid midsize institutions in taking the first step toward a long-term goal that would alter the fabric of the institution. This collaborative grant began at the planning process and was allocated over the course of three years. The inaugural Bold Initiatives recipient was the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (moCa) for its OPEN HOUSE initiative. With this grant, the Foundation supported a museum-wide engagement team trained to support visitor experiences and a new Education Fellowship position dedicated to onsite engagement strategies.
In late 2020, while museums were mostly shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foundation created a new grant program to support initiatives that reimagined the role and use of technology in cultural organizations. This program aspired not only to help organizations execute cutting-edge digital projects, but also to raise the bar on what is perceived as possible for smaller institutions to achieve by funding examples that inspire institutions nationwide. Five organizations were awarded $100,000, and two of those were given renewed funding in 2022 to continue to grow their digital strategy. You can read more about them here.
Beginning in late 2020, the Foundation began making grants to improve educational outcomes for rural and nonmetro youth in our target states: New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona. We aim to scale promising initiatives that have had initial success improving secondary and postsecondary outcomes, as well as boosting college and career readiness, access, and outcomes. As of June 2022, more than $4 million has been pledged or awarded. These grants are currently available by invitation only and we are not accepting unsolicited letters of inquiry in this category.
Expanding the Foundation’s grantmaking to such a different field has been an opportunity for research and convening. In 2022 the Foundation began sharing its own learnings based on conversations with other leaders in these fields, alongside the articles, reports, podcasts, and books that are driving its evolving thinking and grantmaking strategies. Learn more here.
The Foundation identifies and awards individuals who are actively pursuing promising lines of inquiry that align with its collections, employ originality, and exhibit fresh thinking.
In 2015, the Foundation initiated the Arts Writing Awards in Digital Art to recognize sustained scholarship and innovative work in arts writing in the field of digital art. The program provided an annual unrestricted award for an established arts writer who had made significant contributions to the field of digital arts writing and an annual unrestricted award for an emerging arts writer who demonstrated great promise in critical writing relating to the field. Since being awarded the Foundation’s Arts Writing Awards in Digital Art, the ten awardees have collectively produced four books and forty-two essays. The program term ended in 2019 after five successful years.
In 2017, the Foundation established the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation Research Fellowship in Twentieth-Century Abstract Painting, which supported an emerging scholar with detailed access to the collection, professional development experiences, and an opportunity to pursue an independent research project. Over the course of the program’s two-year run, one fellow presented original scholarship on Washington Color School painter Kenneth Young and the second wrote on the emotional intelligence of Helen Frankenthaler’s painting practice.
Established in 2018, the Marilynn Thoma Fellowship in Art of the Spanish Americas is the only unrestricted research funding in the United States devoted exclusively to the field. Predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships are granted annually to support research projects that aim to advance original scholarship in Art of the Spanish Americas. Congruently, the Thoma Foundation’s Research and Travel Awards are distributed to scholars, curators, and advanced graduate students to help defray the costs of research-related expenses. In 2019, two inaugural fellows organized a symposium in Lima, Peru that traced the continuum and disruptions of visual characteristics throughout viceregal art history.
The Foundation’s educational programs aim to deepen engagement with the arts by teaching students to see differently, gain exposure to new ideas, and delve into previously unexplored connections across the history of art. The Foundation has provided educational opportunities for learners of all ages, including lectures, symposia, and class visits to Orange Door and Art House.
These programs are designed to provide students with an opportunity to explore a private art collection, make connections between works across the Foundation’s collection areas, and gain a deeper understanding of the collection fields and their role in society. The Foundation supports art history and studio art programs by offering interactive, on-site learning experiences that expand preexisting curriculum to illustrate the connections between contemporary art and emerging technologies.
From 2015 to 2020, the Foundation has lent more than 1,000 works of art to over 115 exhibitions across the globe. In addition, the Foundation has made over 70 grants to nonprofit organizations, awarded funding to 21 individuals for scholarly research, and hosted 26 exhibitions at its spaces. The Foundation’s collection numbers more than 1,500 works of art and continues to grow.