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The Daily
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Overture Center makes new audiences a priority for 2013
Survival tactics
Multicultural fun at International Fest.
Credit:John Maniaci

On Jan. 1, 2012, Overture Center made a bold move to address its $28 million debt. It resturctured as an independent nonprofit and became responsible for raising $2.4 million in a year. It met this goal, but to avoid future pitfalls must develop new audiences in 2013.

Overture's size and location make audience building "absolutely critical," says Mary Berryman Agard, the city's cultural policy consultant. "Overture is a very large facility for the population immediately around it. Long-term, its survival is based almost entirely on new audiences."

Overture spokesman Robert Chappell draws a distinction between audience members and ticket buyers when discussing audience development. More than 260,000 people bought Overture tickets during the 2010-2011 season, but Chappell estimates that 423,000 came through the doors. Many attended free programs such as Kids in the Rotunda or arts-education initiatives like the Tommy Awards, which recognizes outstanding musical theater productions at local high schools. According to Chappell, such offerings encourage new audiences to buy tickets and become donors.

Chappell says Overture wants to attract more students and people of color. One challenge involves "people thinking Overture equals expensive," he says. "Not everyone knows they can come for a free show on Saturday or a professional dance performance for $20."

Access is another challenge. Out-of-towners lacking public transportation may struggle to get to Madison shows.

Programming also matters. "It might be that a particular program mix doesn't serve all the interests of the community," says Ted DeDee, Overture's new CEO.

Developing larger, more diverse audiences is DeDee's passion. In his previous position, he helped the McCoy Community Center for the Arts, a performing-arts venue near Columbus, Ohio, co-present events with the King Arts Complex, which brings cultural programs to the African American community. Partnerships like these aren't necessarily designed to make money. Instead, they provide long-term possibilities for audience growth and diversification.

While multicultural programs like Overture's International Festival offer a more diverse picture of the arts, DeDee says there's more work to be done, especially at the neighborhood level. Last summer, Overture worked with the Wil-Mar neighborhood to sponsor two folk performers from Mali. The house was 85% full, according to DeDee, and most attendees were from Wil-Mar. Many had never been to Overture.

Co-sponsored events at Overture facilities are just one way to cultivate a more diverse audience, says DeDee. He adds that co-sponsoring neighborhood fairs and festivals is another way Overture could make greater connections. Overture did co-sponsor La Fete de Marquette in 2012.

Of course, retaining existing audiences is still important. To encourage subscription renewals, Overture has developed better incentives for season ticket holders to "deepen their relationship" with the venue, as Chappell puts it. For many, this relationship involves Tim Sauers, Overture's director of programming and community engagement. He leads "Cocktails with Tim," a program that educates subscribers about touring Broadway shows. This month's Rock of Ages program focused on the history of L.A.'s Sunset Strip.

Overture is also using its ticketing system to tailor marketing campaigns to more specific groups of people.

"We're getting smarter about how to convert interest into a sale and then convert that sale into an extraordinary artistic experience," says Chappell.

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