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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Overture Center is not alone in financial difficulties
Publicly funded arts centers are struggling all around the country
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Credit:Lauren Tamaki

The Overture Center for the Arts has had its share of complicated problems since opening in 2004. The solutions to some of those problems have been just as complicated, most recently the Common Council's agonizing decision to transfer management from the city to a private nonprofit, the Overture Center Foundation.

But even with its tangled history, the Overture Center is not unique. Many other cities are struggling to support some of their greatest cultural assets - riches they can ill afford.

Shake-ups are happening at arts centers around the world as cities distance themselves from the burden of running cultural hubs like the Overture Center. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council downsized but didn't scrap a plan to privatize a handful of the 25 small community arts centers that dot the city's landscape. To cut costs, the city wants nonprofits to manage the facilities, but community groups predict the result would be a smoldering wreck. Even worse, they said, would be a silent death: the centers going dark for lack of either government funding or a viable nonprofit operator.

Houston, Texas, created a new nonprofit in June to manage several major downtown theaters and convention centers formerly overseen by city leaders. The new organization, called Houston First, is teaming up with another nonprofit that runs a downtown hotel. The city got an immediate $10 million from the deal as officials sweated out the details of a new city budget.

City officials claimed the transfer was well studied, but critics said it was a slapdash move to balance the budget. An anonymous "arts insider" told the Houston Press weekly newspaper the plan resembled "a musician trading his guitar for crack rocks."

Also in June, a government plan to privatize Rome's Teatro Valle, a famed theater that has relied on public funding to stage experimental theater, elicited outrage. A small army of actors, stagehands and other workers occupied the facility in protest. The Teatro Valle Occupato held afternoon rallies that drew noted Italian artists and other speakers, who say that under private management, even by a nonprofit, the theater's artistic credibility will erode.

Although "privatization" is something of a dirty word in the art world, selecting or creating a "private" nonprofit to run a public arts center is a common strategy, according to Michael Rushton, director of the arts administration program at Indiana University. He says such organizations, when they make fundraising pitches, present a clearer message. It's harder for governments, who by their nature provide a variety of services, to court donors.

Plus, the nonprofit itself benefits from the singular mission. "The organization has the incentive to keep this thing open and running," Rushton says.

And sometimes you have to be creative. In Bloomington, Ind., anxiety over the financially troubled John Waldron Arts Center, opened in 1992, prompted some municipal ingenuity. The city bought the facility from the Bloomington Area Arts Council for $150,000, then sold it to Ivy Tech, the state's community college system, which will use it for art classes, art shows and performances. The center, which has competitors in the southern Indiana city, will live on, but not in the grand form originally envisioned by its founders.

The Overture Center is trying to be creative, too, encouraging "alternative" uses of the facility. "Our mantra is to keep as much activity going as possible," says CEO and president Tom Carto.

Overture's 10 resident companies, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, use much of the space for rehearsals and performances. But finding new uses for Overture also means bringing in more conventions, business functions and even weddings. Overture hosted more than 50 weddings last year, and the American Choral Directors Association will hold a large conference there in early 2012.

In Wisconsin, UW-Green Bay's Weidner Center has also fallen on hard times. It faces stiff competition from the newer Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, the spacious Resch Center across from Lambeau Field and the newly renovated Meyer Theater in downtown Green Bay. Ellen Rosewall, who heads the arts management program at the university, says performance spaces have sprouted all over the state in recent years. "Many of the centers that were built are running into problems," she says.

The Weidner was built in the early 1990s and opened to a rousing welcome by the community. The university managed the theater successfully until 2005, when, worried by declining revenue and budget deficits, it transferred operations to a nonprofit, Weidner Center Presents. This organization, like the Overture Center Foundation, had historically focused on fundraising.

Today, the university is considering taking back management of the Weidner. UW-Green Bay wants greater access to the facility, which is costly for it to use, largely because the Fox Cities center attracts many of the big-name shows the Weidner once used to subsidize its humbler and artsier offerings. But a management shake-up isn't a cure-all, Rosewall notes.

"The problems are going to be the same no matter who's running it," she says.

Carto says Overture doesn't struggle with the stiff competition that has troubled the Weidner. It's far enough from Milwaukee and the Fox Cities to enjoy its own customer base, he says, and it offers world-class facilities that no other theater in town can match.

Built with a $205 million gift from philanthropist Jerome Frautschi, Overture has been called too ambitious by some. Local arts consultant Mary Berryman Agard said in Isthmus that there is "simply no other example of an economic base our size supporting a center the size of Overture." And Mayor Paul Soglin recently predicted that, under the plan worked out by the Common Council, Overture would "crash and burn."

Sounds extreme, but it's not unheard of. "Sometimes, obsessions of grandeur lead projects to go bankrupt," says Philippe Ravanas, chair of the arts, entertainment and media management department at Columbia College, an arts school in Chicago.

Ravanas points to the case of the American Center, an organization promoting American culture in Paris, which built a new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in the 1990s and then was forced to sell it off. To build the architectural wonder, the group sold its historic downtown home for $42 million. Then it dumped all of the money into the new building, setting almost nothing aside for a self-sustaining endowment, according to The New York Times. The organization eventually went bankrupt.

Will the same fate befall the Overture Center?

"I don't think we're going to have a problem like that with cash flow," Carto says. With few reserves and only a small endowment, Overture is "exposed," he says, but "there's no panic."

The Overture Center Foundation is on a mission to raise as much as $15 million in the next five years to bolster the endowment, which can provide a steady, self-sustaining source of revenue. And the new nonprofit structure will better position Overture to raise money and manage its funds, Carto says.

"We'll be a lot more nimble."

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