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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Making the case for Overture
Keeping the center strong is in everyone's best interest
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In about two years, the Overture Center for the Arts will experience a severe revenue shortfall. Simply put, both the public and private sectors will have to dig deeper to provide operational support.

The Overture Center, like similar facilities around the country, cannot operate without substantial subsidies. Revenues from ticket sales, rentals, service fees, concessions and merchandise only provide a fraction of the necessary funds.

Typically, communities spend 10, 15 or more years discussing, building support for, planning and designing arts facilities. In Madison, Overture opened its doors less than five years after the idea surfaced.

Jerry Frautschi's unprecedented gift, which ultimately topped $200 million, eliminated the longest phase of most arts development projects - namely, fundraising. He agreed to pay the entire cost of construction.

Without this, a facility of the Overture Center's magnitude could never have happened here. Our cultural life, or at least a major portion of it, would still be housed in the painfully aging and inadequate Civic Center.

So what went wrong? Why could Overture not "make it," even with all its development and construction costs paid upfront?

In truth, Overture has "made it," providing an excellent home for much of the region's performing and visual arts, and serving as a living laboratory for its creative class.

But from the start, Mr. Frautschi made it clear he would take no hand in the center's operation or financing from Grand Opening forward. In fact, when the time came to establish the center's governing body, he did not even seek a seat at the table.

Overture is now early in its fourth season. Most of its resident organizations have set attendance records, and the quality of arts and entertainment available in south-central Wisconsin has never been higher.

But the collapse of the stock market has undermined the center's endowment fund and put its future in peril. To date, Overture has sustained itself without an infusion of additional resources. But, make no mistake, something needs to be done, and the clock is ticking.

Recently, an independent study group of citizens, led by University Research Park president Mark Bugher, presented a report to the center's governing board. It clarified the issues facing Overture and outlined ways to ensure its long-term viability.

In addition to several potential public and private revenue streams, the group suggests budget cuts and a change in the program mix to hike ticket sales. Both can produce limited results, but should be approached with caution.

Deep budget cuts will almost certainly translate to cuts in personnel, programs and services. Running a comprehensive performing and visual arts center is labor-intensive. It requires a large cadre of stagehands, technicians, ticket sellers and takers, security guards and custodians.

Moreover, show business in general is risky, and a move toward higher-reward shows means accepting higher risk. And ironically, the hottest high-ticket shows are often not very profitable. Those attractions most in demand can dictate the terms of engagement, like ticket prices and profit splits.

Further, there is a limit to the elasticity of entertainment dollars. You can add top-tier attractions all you want, but you can't infinitely expand the willingness of the community to pay to see them.

Overture clearly needs more public sector support, which is how most such facilities are financed. The study group suggests participation from governmental units besides the city of Madison. This is only fair, since more than half of Overture's patrons come from outside city limits.

The study group also suggests creating an entertainment district and corresponding district sales tax, the proceeds of which would support a variety of facilities. Strong consideration should be given to this proposal. Private giving, an endowment and more corporate sponsorships must also be part of the mix.

The case for Overture is clear. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from its offerings and outreach programs. The center has quickly become an important part of our community and one of the linchpins of Madison's reenergized central city. It helps keep the downtown vibrant, populated after dark, alive and immune from the core city decay seen throughout the nation.

Dollars spent in support of facilities like Overture multiply many times in community benefits. The size of the property tax pie in the downtown area has increased significantly in recent years. Existing properties have taken on new value, and several luxury condo projects have sprung into being, using their proximity to Overture as a selling point.

A portion of the value added to local taxing jurisdictions could be dedicated to maintaining Overture. This will keep the downtown healthy and encourage even more development.

In many places, tickets sales of arts organizations are exempt from sales tax and in other communities the taxes collected are returned to arts organizations in the form of operating subsidies or program grants.

Recycling the sales-tax dollars collected in Dane County would be a good start in stabilizing and providing a backbone of support to a number of cultural organizations, including Overture.

Bob D'Angelo worked for the city of Madison from 1990 to 2005, as director of the Madison Civic Center and later the Overture Center. He writes from a federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., where he is serving a one-year sentence for tax evasion and using his office for private gain.

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