Jerry Frautschi, native son and philanthropist, generously bestowed upon Madison a family jewel. Carved into its triangular block, the Overture Center strives to match the glory of the Capitol and thrills Madison with its grandness.
And yet, I've felt conflicted about Overture since the day it was announced as a replacement for the Civic Center. From my unusual vantage point, it was easy to foresee the struggles of the resident companies and the center itself. In the bubble of optimism, I've been a wet blanket.
The financial structure of the new facility meant that every resident company needed a new business plan. On one hand, this was a glorious opportunity, every artistic director's dream come true. Bigger venues! The big time!
Yet, save for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, no resident company (all community based) was solidly in the black. They barely survived season-to-season. A bigger house of cards is still a house of cards.
In the Overture Center's official history is a telling non sequitur: "The Overture Foundation was established to solve the space needs of the city's major arts organizations, and internationally famous architect Cesar Pelli designed the project."
The phrase "space needs" implies that the Civic Center was bursting at the seams - every performance sold out, every production a success. Not so. In fact, the Civic Center's theaters were both too big and too small. The big theater was often undersold (yet cost too much to rent); the small theater required too many performances to make a production financially viable.
There was tension between companies that "shared" theaters and competed for dates. There was competition between the companies and the center itself, which sponsored its own productions. Rehearsal space was limited. Like a family of six in a one-bathroom house, there were fights; these were rarely "fair fights," as the big dogs and politics held sway. Madison's response was to build the Taj Mahal.
From the beginning, the Overture Center has been overfunded, oversold, overbuilt and misunderstood. The valiant effort of city fathers (and mothers) got Pelli's Taj Mahal built. But there was no grand strategy to make a venture of this magnitude in this place make sense. The vision lacked...vision.
As a consultant to some of the world's largest companies, I've seen how the demise of potential has followed the rise of "management." In a world where strategy is dead, "management" - the science of moving money around - reigns.
Management is not leadership. Colin Powell expresses the difference brilliantly: "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible."
The real gift that Jerry Frautschi gave Madison was an incentive for leadership. But all anyone has been able to do with Overture is...manage it. Without a leadership plan, no matter how you move the money around, the numbers won't add up.
I have had an inside view of the Civic Center and the Overture Center. Two decades ago, I was president of Children's Theater of Madison, then rising from one of its many crashes. Three years ago, I rejoined the board for its recent resurrection.
But as soon as Overture opened in 2004, I watched my fears come true. White knights battled to save the resident companies. Pleasant Rowland Frautschi - the catalyst of Jerry's windfall and beneficence - rode in with a $23 million challenge grant.
These heroic measures revived Madison Opera, and CTM steered through the roughest waters. But the Madison Repertory Theatre succumbed, other users have struggled, and the plot is about to thicken as the resident companies face higher fees for renting Overture's venues.
The recent report (PDF) on Overture by AMS Planning & Research Corp. is all about how to make ends meet by manipulating internal costs. There is no recommendation for how to succeed beyond bulking up on low-margin Broadway productions and putting the squeeze on the very resident companies Overture was built to foster.
With its current proposition, the center's ongoing costs and losses will continue to spiral, and it will remain a sinkhole of risk even non-ticket-holders will pay for - unless there's a dramatic change.
What's needed is for someone to lead the way out of this stalemate. Under my wet blanket is a periscope:
Despite the cheesy comparison, Madison's high-minded Overture Center could take a lesson from the Mall of America. Too big for its territory but brimming with possibility, it ramps up the merriment to create a one-of-a-kind experience, and the buses roll in.
Make no mistake, it's the Mall of America. Raucous joy fills its center court. By comparison, the chill, austere emptiness of the Overture Center's foyer is very un-Madison and very un-fun. Any warmth is behind closed doors.
A more elegant model is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Bilbao, once a pleasant but unacclaimed city, committed to an outrageous dream and became a beacon of enchantment revealing a cache of gems around it. The same treasure is buried here; Madison itself can change the fortunes of the self-limited Overture Center.
The dream-based strategy for both the Mall of America and Bilbao was to create a magnet whose reach is vast. Here, Overture can stake out a vast new territory by marketing itself to the world as the crown jewel of a rich arts and artisan-filled land.
Like Bilbao, Madison has seeds of greatness. A world-class farmers' market. A restaurant, L'Etoile, whose chef is regularly featured at international events. An assortment of cuisine from high to ho-ho! Bike trails. Lakes with full access. A new children's museum. Whad'Ya Know? The list goes on.
Overture can be the center of an expanded "Madison" that's ready and waiting. The concept is bigger than has yet been brought to life. But if moving-the-money-around remains Overture's only tactic, it will shrink to Heidi Klum's now-trite truism: "One minute you're in, the next minute you're out." And with the newly proposed plan, millions of city dollars would go "out" with it.
This is not a failure of will, but a failure of imagination. And that's a cruel irony given the role of art in life - expanding the possible with something uniquely conceived.
Pam Murtaugh is a Madison-based consultant to global corporations who currently serves on CTM's advisory board.