When pianist Olga Kern began playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Madison Symphony Orchestra's season opener a few Fridays ago, the first gentle notes hung in the air. I could hear the faint hum of the piano wires vibrating from her pedal work.
What marvelous acoustics Overture Hall has! What a gorgeous place to hear the symphony and the Madison Opera. And what a horrible situation the Overture Center for the Arts finds itself in.
A week earlier, cold to the issue, I parachuted into the last meeting of the Overture Ad Hoc Committee. I heard the rumbling unease in which the committee recommended that the city buy the arts complex for $1 from its private nonprofit owner.
So many unanswered questions, so much uncertainty, and the city is supposed to wrap up this deal before Jan. 1?
Holy cow! I turned to a veteran city official and (with apologies to Jon Stewart) told him: "This is the clusterf#@k of the arts."
That such an extravagant, well-meaning gift of more than $200 million by Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland Frautschi now teeters at the edge of disaster is tragic.
Sadly, some aspects of the building and operational plans were botched by the people who love the center most. Whether the rebooting being rushed through the Common Council puts all the pieces together seems doubtful.
In a nutshell, the deal would wipe away $28.6 million in Overture debt. Private donors would put up $15 million, while the banks that underwrote (and profited from) the Vegas-style financing plan would write off the rest.
The center would be run on the city's behalf by a newly constituted nonprofit board. Owning the facility, however, will cost taxpayers millions, because the city will now assume the lion's share of future repairs.
Council members are understandably wary.
That said, give the governing board of the Madison Cultural Arts District credit. Absent any leadership from City Hall, it made a good-faith effort to fashion a recovery plan.
But, as Pam Murtaugh recently noted in these pages ("Madison's Overture to the World," 10/8/10), missing is any big-picture thinking. Shaped by offstage institutional politics, the plan is wedded to turf protection and preserves a musty status quo.
Conveniently ignored is that the Overture Center is a regional facility, like Monona Terrace and the Alliant Center. Why not treat all three as such, including possible joint operation and financing?
That was a key recommendation of an October 2008 citizens' panel. It called for the city and county to appoint a high-powered committee to study what efficiencies might be achieved by consolidating "public assembly staffs, technicians, catering services and marketing services."
Envisioned was an entertainment district like the ones that run Lambeau Field, Miller Park and Milwaukee's Midwest Express Center. Area museums and the zoo might even be part of it.
Mark Bugher, who's led both Overture review committees, blames political myopia: "Policymakers ought to be looking not at their own turf but at what's in the best interests of their constituents."
In an era of tight budgets, he suggests, the key question is, "How can they deliver services as efficiently as possible, rather than how can they protect their turf, their employees and their budgets?"
Neither Cieslewicz nor County Executive Kathleen Falk stepped up to that challenge. Nor, for that matter, has Bugher himself. He's a prominent voice in the business community, but hasn't pushed consolidation either.
To be sure, consolidation only makes sense if it improves service and cuts costs. Maybe it doesn't work for these three regional facilities. But the city must consider it, if only for possible joint funding and marketing.
Fact is, the glacial pace of governmental consolidation we've seen over the past 30 years (with the county taking over the airport, the zoo, employment training, 911 and health services) has inexplicably ground to a halt during the latter Falk-Cieslewicz years.
Another myopic fortress: the UW-Madison, which is busily raising $38 million to build a new School of Music performance center just blocks away from seriously underused Overture stages. Go figure.
The hour is so late it's hard to see how the Common Council can turn around the Overture discussion, but it has to try.
The first step is recognizing that the Jan. 1 deadline for reconstituting Overture's ownership and governance is impossible to meet, unless the mayor and council are prepared to close their eyes, jump off a cliff and hope for the best.
Better to take a deep breath and consider other options. For one, the city should check out Milwaukee's experience with preserving its signature concert venue, the historic Pabst Theater.
The fact that this hasn't been done already is dumbfounding. I see a lot of live music, and I can tell you that the nonprofit foundation that runs the Pabst (along with the Riverside Theater and Turner Hall) is a marvel.
On matters of ticketing, customer service and booking, the Pabst operation is flat-out superior to Overture. Funded by philanthropist Michael Cudahy, the Pabst books close to 300 shows a year at its three venues.
Note that the city of Milwaukee sold the Pabst to Cudahy's foundation for $1 in 2002. But unlike Overture, the Pabst's nonprofit operators have wildly succeeded. My advice: Jerry and Pleasant should take Mike to dinner at Karl Ratzsch's and pick his brain for ideas.
The Pabst's managerial success suggests another alternative for Overture. The city could issue a request for proposals for a facilities-management outfit to run the arts complex. RFPs are standard procedure for contracting for services. Why not hire an industry leader if consolidation isn't in the picture?
Fixing Overture is the most consequential decision the city has faced in years. Gotten wrong, the building will become a hellish money pit, draining resources from other programs. Gotten right, Overture will become the arts legacy the Frautschis - and Madison - deserve.
Marc Eisen, the former editor of Isthmus, is a Madison-based writer