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Arts lessons: Insights from 2012 that could help Madison culture in 2013
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Credit:Juliet Darken

If 2012 were a high school faculty member, it would have been the disillusioned but determined substitute, pressed into service by a crisis during the second week of school. The whole year felt like a long exercise in transition and upheaval for several of Madison's arts groups and venues, some of which found themselves without a home, without a leader or without a certain future. Others flourished in unexpected ways, despite a turbulent local economy and political scene.

To pave the way for a more enlightened 2013, Isthmus collected some of the interesting and unusual lessons Madison's arts organizations learned in 2012.

Project Lodge

All you need to know about 2012 for the Project Lodge, the ambitious DIY arts space that used to be on East Johnson Street, is echoed in the wistful words of Sonia-Maria Simes, the site's gallery manager: "I learned that living in a university town doesn't mean that there is a great appetite for challenging, contemporary art that is not university- or MMoCA-sanctioned."

That became painfully apparent in October, when the Project Lodge's lease came up and the operation was forced to take a hiatus. Director Bessie Cherry and her team searched for new, more affordable near-east-side space. That search continues into 2013, but Cherry manages to sound a hopeful note: "We learned that in order to find exactly what we want, we have to pinpoint exactly what we want to be, which will be a big step in the evolution of our little DIY arts space."

There's another, bigger lesson in the events that took flight at the Project Lodge, from the Sunday-night comedy open mics hosted by Chris Lay and Jay Abbondanza to the Monsters of Poetry spoken-word slam, which has continued elsewhere even after the Project Lodge closed. "As cultural creativity expands, the need for unique venues - all ages, multipurpose, large open rooms that are able to be transformed in various ways - becomes more and more obvious," Cherry says.

Majestic Theatre

Creative experimentation paid major dividends in 2012 for the Majestic, where a steady stream of standup comedy gigs drew large crowds, as did clever new events like the Summer Set Music and Camping Festival and the Live on King Street outdoor concert series. These pursuits made the venue feel like the vibrant social heart of Capitol Square's cultural scene.

"I'd say that the biggest lesson we learned in 2012 was to trust our instincts and to follow our ideas," says Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding. "People in Madison want live music, they want creative party ideas, they want something different."

The Majestic also marked its five-year anniversary under the current management, which prompted Gerding and co-owner Scott Leslie to reflect on how far they've come. "I think we fully understand who we are now," says Gerding.

Hey, that's more than most of us can say.

Overture Center

Overture CEO Ted DeDee's 2012 education resembled a grad-level course in political maneuvering. "We learned it was possible to spend the previous two years transitioning from a city-management model to a private nonprofit model," he says. The final exam went down in October, when a group of Madison alders tacked an amendment onto the city budget, providing Overture with $1.75 million in funding, more than twice what Mayor Paul Soglin had proposed.

The real lesson DeDee and the Overture Center Foundation may have learned is that political partnerships can pay off, and not just on the budget ledger. DeDee cites Overture's support of the Waterfront and Fête de Marquette festivals in Ald. Marsha Rummel's east-side district, support that led to neighborhood residents attending programming in the Capitol Theater for the first time.

"Even in the political arena, one needs to make sure everyone understands the balance of the city maintaining the Overture Center at the same level as the Civic Center days," says DeDee. "It's incumbent on us to show the reality that the center is a resource for the entire community."

Dane Arts

Pam Andros didn't begin the year heading Dane Arts, but that's where she found herself in September, appointed to replace outgoing director Karen Crossley on an interim basis. Still, a four-month crash course was enough to give her a sense of 2012, which she says felt like "another year of less, another year of uncertainty."

"I learned that it is true that every bit helps," says Andros, pointing to the new power2give program, a Kickstarter-esque platform that matches small local donations with arts projects in the community.

"More communities are integrating the arts as part of their community building and related economic development efforts," she says. "People now understand what it means to have a sense of place and are invested in preserving, creating and nurturing it."

Orpheum Theatre

The Orpheum almost found itself expelled from the local music scene in 2012, as the feud between owners Henry Doane and Eric Fleming turned ugly in the courtroom and the city yanked the venue's liquor license. The theater went dark, only to reemerge late in the year under the management of Madison-based concert-promotion company Frank Productions and its newest acquisition, True Endeavors.

True Endeavors' founder and lead promoter, Tag Evers, says the experience has produced a guarded optimism. "We're busy getting the Orpheum cleaned up and ready to go," he says. "Major renovations are still a ways off." The early months of 2013 will see five big concerts in February and a soon-to-be-announced "very big show" in March.

Trading employers and taking the reins of one of Madison's most distinguished historical venues taught Evers a thing or two, beginning with the old saw that change is good. "For years I worked out of my home, starting every morning by making coffee and answering email in my underwear," he notes. "Now I wear pants and go to an office. People take me more seriously now that I wear pants, which is a good thing."

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

In 2012, MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman learned that "you can still have a big impact when you're dead."

Fleischman's referring to the runaway success of MMoCA's Houdini exhibition, which opened last February. The show drew a whopping 56,000 visitors, including magicians, kids and contemporary artists. Impressive, sure, but it's not even the biggest milestone the museum hit last year. Fleischman reveals that for the first time in its 111-year history, MMoCA drew more than 200,000 visitors in a year. It also welcomed its millionth visitor of all time. "When you're on fire, you're on fire," he says.

Speaking of en fuego, the annual Madison Art Fair on the Square, where Fleischman spent a shift grilling bratwurst, also contained a lesson. "I learned that people don't actually melt when it's 90 degrees on the Square," he says. "And when you're done, you can crawl into the back of a beer caddy, and it's surprisingly cool."

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