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Richard Mackie remembers that when Overture Center for the Arts was being built in 2004, representatives from the various arts groups that planned to use the building would meet regularly.
There was a flair to the meetings, as you'd expect with lovers of the fine arts. "We'd have wine and cheese," says Mackie, executive director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. "The Symphony was there, the Opera, the Children's Theater. We were just talking about the opportunities of the new facilities. We wanted to speak in a unified voice about our aspirations in the new hall."
As the conversations progressed, Mackie remembers, the arts groups settled on the term "residents."
"We coined the term resident because we thought to be considered tenants was indicative of a more ephemeral or temporary status. The spirit of the resident company is that we'd be at home in the building, which meant we represent the community arts in the building."
That may have always been the intent of the groups using Overture, as well as Overture's managers. But since its construction, the arts center has struggled financially.
Last December, Madison Common Council approved a restructuring agreement that erased the center's debt and transferred ownership and management responsibilities to the 201 State Foundation, which is now called the Overture Center Foundation. The 10 resident companies have remained largely in the background. Confusion about what it means to be a resident company persists.
As Overture's restructuring takes shape this year, the companies hope to clarify that relationship and have a more active role in the center's management.
"It's always felt a little bit like an us-and-them situation -- there's the dad, and then we have to do what we're told," says Roseann Sheridan, artistic director for Children's Theater of Madison. "I really think now it can't be that kind of position. We need to think about it as all of us."
Tom Carto, executive director of Overture Center, says, "It's our intention to strengthen the relationship with resident companies. We're engaging them in our strategic planning. We're having dialogue about how we can improve resident planning and what is the meaning of residency."
Three kinds of events go on at Overture Center: events produced by resident groups, events produced by Overture Center (such as the Broadway series), and events produced by outside groups.
Of these, resident companies performed the most events in 2010, with 110. This ranged between Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society's four events and Children's Theater of Madison's 34.
Overture produced 86 events last year, including 55 in the Broadway series. Outside companies produced 67 events at Overture, including shows presented by Door County's American Folklore Theater and concerts by Steve Martin, Bill Maher and Bob Dylan.
Ten groups currently call Overture home, though only one of them, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, has its offices at the center. The other groups are Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Children's Theater of Madison, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, Kanopy Dance Company, Madison Ballet, Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Academy and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
The Museum of Contemporary Art and the Wisconsin Academy rent space from Overture. The other groups all have a primary space where they perform, though they can also use other spaces for shows when needed.
The benefits of residency are both practical and symbolic, arts groups say. The practical benefit comes in the form of reduced rates for renting Overture's seven venues. But the 50% discount is also provided to nonprofit groups.
The other practical benefit, which non-resident groups don't have, is access. "The most valuable thing to resident companies is the calendar," says Carto. "They have co-equal rights with us to choose dates. Each company has a primary venue and a secondary venue. There are certain dates they can hold."
That scheduling priority is one of the best advantages of being a resident, agrees CTM's Sheridan. "Resident organizations have first rights to get their event on the calendar."
And, Mackie says, the symbolic benefit of being an Overture Center resident company is just as important as the practical ones: "We succeed to the extent that we represent the community in all the things that we do."
The arts groups are generally thrilled to have the restructuring deal worked out.
"I'm very optimistic about it," says Sheridan. "I think there will be a little more ability for there to be some operating decisions that can be done with the best interest of the resident organizations in mind."
She hopes the new structure will bring clarity and efficiency. "The [old] structure has been very confusing even for those of us who were closest to it. If someone said, 'How does it work?' - 'Well, some of it's city owned, some of it isn't.' Now it's much cleaner and more identifiable."
At least as significant was erasing the $28 million debt, which made fundraising difficult.
The debt was erased after six private donors gave $15 million and the banks forgave the remainder. The deal was contingent on a restructuring of the center's management. The private donors originally wanted the city to take ownership and leave management up to a private nonprofit organization. But a compromise was reached - over the objections of many employees and city officials - to create the new nonprofit that would both manage and own the center, with an increased city subsidy.
Mackie says resolving the $28 million debt alone was a huge step forward.
"We're certainly relieved it was resolved and the building is not on the auction block," he says. "Stabilization has a huge impact. That's gigantic for everyone. The existence of all these organizations would be at risk. Stability is the most important element."
The relationship between the residents and Overture hasn't always been smooth, Sheridan says. Children's Theater of Madison does a big holiday show every year - traditionally A Christmas Carol, though last year it staged a version of It's a Wonderful Life. When Sheridan first started working for Children's Theater in 2007, Overture booked an outside production of Wizard of Oz during the holiday season.
"That was difficult for us," she says. "We saw the same audience come through the door and split. Since then we've had better communications."
Carto says Overture has made an effort in recent years not to repeat mistakes like that and tries to "spread out the calendar, making sure we're not stepping on each others' toes, trying to make sure we're not creating competition."
During the restructuring, Overture is forming a resident-company committee, to give input to the Overture Center Foundation, which will own and run the center beginning next January. The resident groups used to meet, but, Sheridan says, "It felt like we would have information passed down. We weren't really very involved."
Still, Sheridan doesn't want to have too much input: "You have to let an individual entity do its job," she says. "I don't for a minute want to become part of the staff of Overture and have to run two organizations."
Carto says this year is a big chance to make improvements.
"This is an exciting time," Carto says. "It's a clean slate and a great opportunity to look back on our five- or six-year history and see what's working and what isn't."
Today, the residency status of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is different from all the other groups, says Steve Fleischman, the museum's director. Under the restructuring of Overture, the city agreed to make the building into a condo - giving the museum ownership of its half, while Overture keeps the performance spaces. This arrangement is not yet finalized.
But despite that ownership change, Fleischman says, "Our relationship won't change an iota. That's really at the heart of it."
Under the new structure, will the museum technically remain a resident group? Fleischman says he hasn't really considered the question. "Yeah, I think we will," he says. "Our intent is to still be sitting at the table."
He adds, "Our plate of concerns is so different," noting that the museum doesn't have to worry about scheduling space or working with the box office. The maintenance and operation structures have all been well established.
"There isn't really a lot of concern left to work out. We each know how the relationship works," he says. "It's probably one of the duller stories in the building."
As Overture moves forward, is there room for more resident groups? Possibly, Carto says. "We have seven spaces here," he says. "We have more room to have different-size resident companies."
Jennifer Uphoff Gray, artistic director with Forward Theater Company, says her company has applied for residency status. That application is up in the air until the restructuring gets more finalized. If admitted, Forward would make the Playhouse its home venue. That would bring an adult-oriented theater company under Overture's roof for the first time since Madison Repertory Theatre imploded two years ago.
Forward Theater already gets discount rates as a nonprofit. "We're not doing this for financial reasons," says Gray. But being a resident allows a more simplified process, as far as ticketing and booking are concerned.
More than that, Gray says, Overture Center was an early supporter of Forward Theater, including giving the company some financial support.
"There may have been some skepticism about us in other places in the community," she says. "They gave us the access and opportunity to go in and give it our best shot."
Says Gray, "We feel that Overture is the center of arts in Madison."
In 2010, Overture Center resident companies produced 110 of the 263 performances that took place there.
- Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: 4
- Children's Theater of Madison: 34
- Li Chiao-Ping Dance: 7
- Kanopy Dance Company: 12
- Madison Ballet: 10
- Madison Opera: 11
- Madison Symphony Orchestra: 23
- Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra: 9