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Overture charts a new course
Tom Carto seeks to stabilize a shaky arts operation

Credit:Pete Olsen

New Overture Center president and CEO Tom Carto often ends his response to questions about his plans for the two-and-a-half-year-old performing center with the same sentence: 'It won't happen overnight.'

Those who expected Carto to gallop in on a white horse and quickly fix the $210 million center's decline in ticket sales and ongoing financial struggles might be disappointed by his caution. But Carto is just being realistic. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz tapped him for a big job last September, and Carto certainly didn't inherit a simple turnkey operation.

Sitting in his corner office at Overture on a bright March morning, the 49-year-old Carto projects an air of discipline and calm. And that's good. Overture isn't a sinking ship, but it has been listing. The endowment fund that pays its construction debt and a portion of annual operating costs continues to underperform, and a $700,000 shortfall in the 2007-08 budget required dipping into the capital of the 201 State Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting Overture Center.

Then there's Overture's image problem. Outreach efforts and a slate of free programming just haven't branded Overture as the people's house.

'We've talked a lot about this since I've been here,' Carto says with obvious frustration. 'I still think that there's a bit of a pervasive thought in this town that the arts, and perhaps Overture itself, are 'elitist' and not accessible or approachable.'

Carto won't blame his predecessors for Overture's troubles. Indeed, he has nothing but good things to say about interim president Michael Goldberg (who resigned his permanent vice president position in December after being passed over for the top post). But it's plain from talking with Carto that his approach to arts management is very different from the top-down style instituted by Overture's first president, longtime Madison Civic Center director Bob D'Angelo.

And that could be a plus for Overture.

New marketing strategy

Carto plans on delegating plenty of authority to his staff. It's a style he embraced during the 10 years he ran the far smaller Renaissance Performing Arts Association in Mansfield, Ohio, and he believes good things happen when staffers know they're trusted and appreciated for their talent.

'Certainly we understand and respect the hierarchy of management,' he says, 'but I think having everyone in on the conversation before final decisions are made is crucial. You get more ownership, you get more buy-in, and it's tremendously advantageous for a leader to get all different perspectives.'

Carto says he has already rallied his staff around the idea that a focused marketing strategy is key to the center's future. Now he is eager to see them move beyond Overture's tired reliance on the mass mailings to Dane County residents and staid media buys that failed to brand Overture as a friendly, accommodating place for everyone to take in arts events.

He speaks animatedly of focus groups that have helped point out shortcomings in programming and Overture's penetration of the community. 'We're looking at a big change there into a much more 20th-century-looking marketing effort,' he adds. 'We're looking at doing much more e-marketing and Web-based marketing and target marketing and viral marketing. All those buzzwords that you hear. We need to be doing those things for the size of the venue that we are.'

The new marketing push will also extend beyond Dane County. Carto argues that the center's demanding economics require that Overture cast a much wider net than it has in the past.

'We certainly want to see ticket sales grow, and we think we have some work to do in reaching farther out into markets and becoming a destination,' Carto explains, noting that the Dane County audience alone won't ever be enough to bring in the ticket revenues Overture requires.

'Madison is a great help to that because it's a wonderful destination. But we have to look farther out than Dane County to really accomplish that and become much more regional in our focus and in our marketing strategies.'

Outside promoters

Goldberg had already booked a portion of Overture's upcoming season. Some of the events Carto and his staff will be marketing in 2007-08 will bear the new president's stamp, but it won't really be his season.

Still, the center's calendar should begin to look a little different. Concerns about the budget mean that there will be fewer dates by touring orchestras and major artists.

And to pump up income from hall rentals and broaden Overture's appeal, Carto and his staff are opening up both the 2,250-seat Overture Hall and the smaller 1,100-seat Capitol Theater to outside promoters like Madison-based Frank Productions.

Off the record, some promoters say that the cost of doing business at Overture, including requirements to use expensive in-house catering and union stagehands, has limited their ability to bring popular musical acts and comedians to the gleaming new facility.

But Fred Frank of Frank Productions has met with Carto, and he feels that Overture is a good fit for acts that charge a higher ticket price: 'I hate to use the word 'mainstream,' but things like the Moody Blues, who we've done successfully there in the past. Sheryl Crow, Harry Connick Jr. ' that would be a really good environment for that type of act.'

Since Overture's opening in 2004, Frank Productions has brought no more than two acts a year to the center. Now that Carto is actively marketing his facilities to promoters, Fred Frank could see expanding that figure to maybe six per year.

That might not sound like a significant increase. But if Carto secures deals with additional outside promoters (he's also talking with the promotion company Live Nation), Overture's profile as a bastion of 'elitist' art might soften. Obviously, the extra dollars that come from shows on which the center shares no, or minimal, financial risk are a big plus as well.

Bringing in outside promoters does have a downside. Carto says he's met with the managers of other large venues in town and explained that Overture isn't trying to 'put anyone out of business.' But those other theaters worry that bringing more popular artists to Overture can't help but hurt their own bottom lines.

'Anytime a new venue is added to the mix or a venue decides that it's going to be more active, that business has gotta come from somewhere,' worries Barrymore Theatre manager Steve Sperling. 'It isn't as if there's a whole new audience out there.'

Sperling has met with Carto and his staff and feels the Overture president was being straight about the center's determination not to encroach on the Barrymore's audience. On the other hand, he says the Barrymore just struggled through the worst season of his 12-year tenure, and the prospect of more competition for the public's limited entertainment dollars is the last thing he needs.

The money-raiser

Much of Carto's time will be spent this year ramping up Overture's first coordinated fund-raising campaign.

Mayor Cieslewicz said last September that Carto's extensive fund-raising experience at the Renaissance Performing Arts Association and elsewhere was the deciding factor in giving him the job, so it's no surprise that Carto began fashioning a strategy to increase the center's unearned income shortly after he took over his position.

That strategy, says Carto, will include going to private and corporate donors and asking for funds. But he'll look to other sources as well. 'We have sponsorships, but I think we can do a lot better,' he explains. 'Grant-writing, foundation support ' that's an area we need to work on. Fund-raising is multi-pronged. It's not just donors here and donors there. It encompasses a lot of different areas.'

In the past, some of Overture's eight resident arts companies have complained ' mostly off the record ' that any fund-raising the center does will hurt their own campaigns. And those concerns remain.

Julie Jensen, managing director of the Madison Repertory Theatre, says that experience has taught her that the public often doesn't realize the difference between arts groups and the nonprofit facilities where they perform. When people write a check to Overture, they might mistakenly believe that they're giving to resident groups like the Rep as well.

Jensen adds, however, that it's really too early to tell how Carto's efforts will affect local groups: 'There will be some competition. However, Carto has assured the resident organizations that he will be in communication with them regarding his fund-raising efforts. I've not yet seen his formal plans, so I'm not certain what they're planning to do yet.'

Right now, Carto is still developing those plans. But he does say that for Overture's fund-raising strategy to work, the center must embrace modern approaches to both public relations and marketing. He explains they're both important components of successful fund-raising ' especially in Overture's case.

It's wonderful that Jerry Frautschi's generous gift paid for Overture's construction and helps defray operating costs, he says. But he argues that generosity came at price. Usually, new arts centers come about after years of public discussion and a capital campaign that creates a strong sense of community ownership. That process didn't happen here.

Now he and his staff need to convince the community to buy in: 'We have some work to do to generate some of that community ownership to this building that was built so generously by this individual. What a tremendous boon to the city and the community it is. We need to tell that story and create that sense of ownership, and then fund-raising will follow.'

Unsurprisingly, he adds soberly: 'It doesn't happen overnight.'

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