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Wednesday, August 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  A Few Clouds
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New Overture Center management nails fundraising goal
Mayor Soglin's pessimistic comments 'may have motivated staff'
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The money collected from private donations supports Overture's free offerings and educational initiatives.
The money collected from private donations supports Overture's free offerings and educational initiatives.

Last August, Overture Center spokesman Robert Chappell boldly predicted that the nonprofit organization due to take over the arts facility would have little trouble meeting its first year, $2.36 million fundraising goal.

Mayor Paul Soglin, on the other hand, famously predicted that Overture in its new incarnation would "crash and burn."

It turns out -- at least when it comes to the group's fundraising prowess -- Chappell was right on the money. Between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, the Overture Center Foundation raised $2.365 million, $5,000 over its goal.

"We made it," says Chappell, "with a day to spare."

Soglin, in a statement, says he is "heartened" by the report. But he's not yet ready to say more: "I look forward to a full review of the Overture Center from the city finance department."

Mayoral aide Monica Sundal says the finance department will be reviewing Overture's fundraising reports before next year's city budget is adopted in the fall. The current budget includes a $2 million subsidy for the arts center, higher than the $1.35 million slotted by Soglin. The mayor has also said he is not sure a $2 million subsidy is sustainable, given Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts.

Chappell laughs when asked whether the mayor's comments last year inspired fundraising vigor.

"I think it may have motivated staff in general to do a great job, and I think we did," he says. "We're ending in the black. We project to end in the black again in 2013 and be able to make capital improvements."

Chappell says Overture will also be able to add money to a reserve fund, "which is smart business, but also something the city has asked us to do."

The newly independent center officially launched January 1, but it's been about a year since a new, larger board was put in place, development staff hired and fundraising begun.

Chappell says the 21 board members "were all in," making donations themselves and leveraging "a lot of their relationships and friendships."

Linda Baldwin, Isthmus' associate publisher, is a member of the board.

The money collected from private donations supports Overture's free offerings and educational initiatives, including Kids in the Rotunda, Overture After Work and the "Tommy Awards," a program to honor local students involved in musical theater.

In December 2011, Overture officials and the city agreed to transfer management of the arts facility from the Madison Cultural Arts District to a nonprofit organization, the Overture Center Foundation. The move was made in part to address unresolved debt plaguing the $205 million arts center, built with a donation by philanthropist Jerome Frautschi. As part of the pact, the city agreed to the annual $2 million subsidy.

The combined $4.4 million in private donations and city subsidies is a relatively small part of Overture's $17 million budget, says Chappell. The bulk comes from ticket sales (including 52% from Broadway shows); rent paid by resident companies and promoters; and weddings.

Even the most successful arts organizations get only 50% to 60% of their budgets from these "earned revenue" sources, says Chappell. "Overture Center is close to 75%," he says.

This year's fundraising effort got a major boost from large matching grants from Madison Gas and Electric and businesswoman Dianne Christensen. In all, 1,720 individuals made donations or pledges: 693 gave less than $100; 167 gave $1,000 or more; and 458 gave to Overture for the first time. Fifty-six local businesses also made donations or sponsored programs.

Chappell says people seemed more eager to give now that Overture was no longer largely a city facility.

"It's very difficult to convince an individual or foundation to make a donation to a government department," says Chappell, noting that people often think their taxes should cover anything needed by a public entity.

Next year's fundraising goal is $2.4 million, just a tad higher than this year's. Overture is expanding its fundraising staff, knowing that procuring funds could get harder. "The first year," says Chappell, "we might have gotten low-hanging fruit."

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