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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Overture Center turns 10: How the arts venue is transforming downtown Madison
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Credit:Brucie Rosch

Madison philanthropist Jerry Frautschi changed the architectural landscape of the isthmus when he donated $205 million to create Overture Center for the Arts. Since opening in 2004, the arts venue has also influenced the downtown business climate, enhanced artistic and educational resources for the community, and sparked animated political, financial and social discussions. The journey from then to now has been both rocky and joyful, and the center is poised to shape downtown's future culturally and economically in its next 10 years.

Susan Schmitz, president of the economic development organization Downtown Madison Inc., is acutely aware of Overture's impact.

"Overture has brought so many people to this community to fill hotels, eat in restaurants, shop and enjoy downtown," she says.

Schmitz characterizes the performing arts center as a new anchor for a formerly struggling business district, one that's brought retailers and upscale restaurants back to the Capitol Square and beyond.

"It raised the bar for property owners on State Street," she explains. "Stores started fixing up their facades. The whole area got a bit of a facelift."

Schmitz says Overture has also fueled the booming condo market downtown.

"Talk to anyone who lives downtown," Schmitz says. "The first thing they say is, 'I can walk to Overture.' It did everything that Jerry Frautschi wanted it to do."

Frautschi was unavailable for comment, but he must be impressed with Overture's resolve. The venue's story resembles a dramatic opera that might appear on one of its stages. The first few years were fraught with funding problems, and the Great Recession presented additional challenges. But the center's leaders never abandoned hope.

A rough start

President and CEO Ted DeDee, who joined Overture in 2012, doesn't sugarcoat the center's early struggles.

"No other arts center has had such a grand opening and such a rough start," he noted recently.

Because Frautschi's enormous gift financed Overture, the center did not have a built-in base of supporters when it opened. Some questioned its opulence and size, and whether Madison audiences could support it. Others saw it as a playground for the elite or, worse, a financial burden for taxpayers. The first few years of Overture's tenure downtown also coincided with an economic downturn that resulted in major cuts to arts funding. Some of Overture's resident companies, such as Madison Repertory Theatre, called it quits.

Although the community had been assured that Frautschi's donation would be self-sustaining, Overture entered a financial maelstrom. To pay off construction loans and prepare for the building's ongoing maintenance, half of the initial $205 million gift was invested in a trust fund. So when the stock market plunged in 2008, Overture lost its financial security.

"We were faced with a dire financial situation. Not only did we not have that $1.4 million per year of annual revenue [interest income from investments], we had $28 million of debt overnight," says former Overture president and CEO Tom Carto.

For more than two years, Overture and city officials struggled to find a solution.

"It was very difficult, and there was lots of negative publicity," Carto says. "Fundraising during that time was very hard. People weren't convinced that Overture's future was secure, and donors don't give to organizations in that position."

In December 2010, a compromise was reached. The banks involved would forgive about half of Overture's remaining debt, and major donors (including Frautschi) would pay the rest if the city increased its annual operating subsidy for the building. A private nonprofit organization would assume ownership and operations.

But this agreement wasn't a silver bullet.

"When Overture was privatized, it solved some problems, but we still have to raise a significant amount of money," Carto says. "Going back and forth with the city council and the banks, and raising the rest of the money to get rid of the debt -- it was a huge effort. There was lots of blood, sweat and tears to get it done."

But it did get done. Carto looks back on the experience with pride.

"I'm very proud that I left the institution in great shape, with great potential. Even during difficult times, there were great successes in management and programming."

Superior sights and sounds

Struggles aside, there's no question that Overture Center achieved the goal of providing an extraordinary venue for a variety of live performances. John DeMain, Madison Symphony Orchestra's music director, calls Overture a "game changer."

"Our previous home in the Oscar Mayer Theatre was acoustically challenging. There were 900 seats under a low ceiling balcony. That resulted in harsh, horrible sound. The stage couldn't accommodate a real acoustic shell, and the seats were uncomfortable," he says.

Then came Overture Hall, which opened doors for both the MSO and groups like Madison Opera, where DeMain serves as artistic director.

"Overture Hall solved all of [the sound problems], resulting in an acoustically splendid environment both on stage and in the auditorium," he says. "We increased our performances from Saturday and Sunday, adding Friday as well."

Kathryn Smith, director of Madison Opera, notes how Overture has contributed to her company's artistic success.

"From the technical capabilities of theater that have allowed us to present more complicated physical productions, to the perfect acoustics that make Overture Hall a favorite place for singers to perform.... It is no coincidence that Madison Opera has grown so much since Overture opened."

W. Earle Smith, Madison Ballet's artistic director, says Overture is superior to his group's former performance spaces as well. He also notes that Overture is a place for artistic cross-pollination, in part because so many types of activities take place there.

"Overture Center has become a gathering place for the arts in Madison, both for professional arts organizations and for patrons of the arts," he says. "Something is always happening, from music to dance to theater and visual art, and the high quality of the work has become an expectation. This is wonderful for Madison Ballet. It charges us with a mission to bring our best [to] every performance."

Challenges and opportunities

Bringing a balanced mix of offerings to Overture's stages is an ongoing challenge. Tim Sauers, Overture's vice president of programming and community engagement, emphasizes that the center is designed to serve the entire community.

"It's important to have local, regional, national and international performances there," he says.

Broadway shows were introduced in the 2008-09 season, and they've been a source of revenue and new audiences ever since. Sauers banks on big-name touring musicals, with the enormously popular Book of Mormon serving as the centerpiece of the 2014-2015 season. Overture tends to book full weeks of Broadway shows. This began with The Lion King, the bestselling production in its history. Sauers says Wicked, Billy Elliot and The Phantom of the Opera helped make Madison the fastest-growing Broadway market in the U.S. from 2009 to 2012.

The total number of tickets sold has risen from about 446,000 in the 2008-09 season to nearly 551,000 in the 2012-13 season, according to Overture spokesperson Rob Chappell. These figures include Broadway shows and other touring productions, promoter-run events, gallery attendance numbers, and performances by resident companies like Forward Theater and Kanopy Dance.

Financial health allows Overture to diversify programming and implement arts education programs. Profitable Broadway shows also help fund community-access grants, which let Overture rent space to new arts organizations at reduced rates.

Chappell says Overture is making progress in establishing its own fundraising program. Donations, grants and sponsorships have increased from $800,000 to $2.4 million over the past three years. And in a somewhat surprising about-face, Mayor Paul Soglin recently recommended $1.75 million in Overture funding for the city's upcoming budget, matching Overture's grant request. This comes after years of Soglin proposing less funding than Overture and the City Council preferred.

Chappell is pleased with the mayor's decision.

"It demonstrates his support for what we do," Chappell says. "Those dollars are important to our budget, [and] we can spend this fall focusing on what we do instead of lobbying city government for funds."

Chappell says Soglin's support will inspire confidence from the private sector and make it easier for Overture to solicit corporate gifts and sponsorships.

"Businesses take their cues from elected leaders," he says.

Building on success

In the long term, DeDee wants to create an endowment to ensure a sustainable future for the building and the organization. In the short term, he's looking for new ways for Overture to connect with the community.

"Our email list has doubled since I came. We keep track of all our ticket buyers and people coming to events," he says. "Our best supporters are going to be [existing] fans of the Broadway series, Kids in the Rotunda and our National Geographic series."

But getting new audiences excited about Overture is just as important.

"We have to continually look at ways to expand that engagement," DeDee says. "That's the way you become more relevant, valuable and appreciated."

His efforts in this area will be key to the institution's future. Some local arts leaders have criticized Overture for engaging with only a small slice of the community.

"It is a good facility with good intentions, and its staff is truly committed to Madison and its constituents, but I think the shows still don't speak to a wider audience," says Dane Arts Director Mark Fraire. "It still has a long way to go to truly impact the arts [in terms of] local hiring, local art exhibits, local artists participating and community engagement."

Chappell is aware of such concerns.

"You still hear that the building is just for elitists," Chappell says. "We are a nice venue, we put on top-quality performances, and we book extraordinary artists. That doesn't make us elitist. Old attitudes die hard."

Making Overture events easier to afford and attend is an important piece of the puzzle, especially where low-income community members are concerned.

"We're finding new ways to work with new populations outside of our own walls," Chappell explains. "People are unaware that almost half of our performances are free, and we offer ticket vouchers to clients of nonprofit agencies."

Rick Mackie, Madison Symphony Orchestra's executive director, sees the next decade's tasks in a positive light.

"The challenges for Overture are the challenges for all of us: continually improve. Build on success. Serve the community in all the ways you can."

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