[note: This piece is a response to a debate I got into on Twitter with local blogger/journalist/foodie/all around renaissance man Kyle Nabilcy. In the interest of impartiality I did not read his response before publishing this piece.]
Newly minted Mayor Soglin has initiated a firestorm of commentary over his recent prediction that, without significant correction, the Overture Center is doomed to “crash and burn”. While I’m sure he meant this with no hint of hyperbole, as I mean this with no hint of sarcasm, he is doing the right thing by forcing our community to consider the landscape of arts and culture in Madison and evaluating the best steps forward toward creating a sustainable cultural community. His work prior to mayorship on the Overture’s ad hoc committee and his blog commentary on the issue was very astute and a significant reason that I supported and continue to support him as he plays devil’s advocate to our city’s well founded, but fragmented, arts base.
Let me start with a disclaimer. To say that the Overture is struggling is not telling the whole story. In fact, I would argue that the Overture Center is, by most measures, the best run, most beautiful and most community responsive arts organization in Madison and perhaps the entire midwest. I had the very rare opportunity of working with the management and staff of the Overture Center in planning both years of the Forward Festival and from contract to curtain it was one the most incredible and inspiring experiences of my life. The management there (especially Susan and Rudy) went out of their way to be accommodating to our event in any way they could and in a way that no one else in Madison did. Every meeting we had, every little detail, every minor concern, every person we interacted with, was more professional and treated us with more respect than anyone else in the arts community I have yet to have a chance to work with. They truly exude a genuine desire to make the Overture succeed and to understand how to accomplish that. There is no doubt that they are doing the best they can with the cards that they’ve been handed. Any dire prediction about the Overture coming to fruition will be no fault of its management and by no lack of trying to correct it in any capacity they can.
So why then do we find ourselves in this situation?
Primarily, and obviously, a bum economy and sour investments. But it’s not as simple as saying the economy has negatively impacted ticket sales. The Overture has made well founded and dynamic programming decisions and their continually rising ticket sales are one of the most compelling reasons to keep subsidizing them, even if ticket sales alone are a long way from paying down the significant debt that they find themselves in. The fundamental issue at this point is fundraising. I saw this shrinking local donor base firsthand as a member of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission. Corporate partners and private donors alike are in significant decline locally and nationally and are forcing nonprofits to struggle more than ever to fulfill their missions. This is toxic to a place like the Overture Center, which despite their truly accessible and diverse community impact, is still a luxury item for our region and largely caters toward an affluent subscriber base. More than ever, the conversation needs to be refocused toward addressing that those patrons who appreciate what the Overture offers and can afford to support it need to step up and put their money where their mouth is.
But with Overture CEO Tom Carto hired largely due to his success and experience in fundraising prior to relocating to Madison, it’s time to make him fight for his job and prove how he is going to turn these numbers around. A change at the top could prove to be the best thing for the Overture Center at this juncture and send a strong message to the community that the city understands the problem and has identified a clear direction forward with a leader who can bring them there. There are plenty of strong internal candidates who should consider putting their hat in the ring. Moreover, identifying a candidate who is an active member of the local cultural community and understands the impact of the Overture on it should be considered a top priority.
This also reveals a fundamental problem with a project of this scale in our city. On paper, and by the numbers, our community was ready for the Overture. We are growing and culturally aware, but we are also a community that responds to grassroots initiatives that are progressive and at times experimental. The Overture was from inception a top down approach to cultural development. The project was funded largely by one gift rather than by building a large donor base. Compare this to the Garver Feed Mill project which was supported vigorously by the community in theory (77% of Madison voted to support it in referendum) but was shelved recently when it fell significantly short of fundraising goals. Sometimes, even frustratingly, often, community support isn’t the only indication of a project’s success in our city. We either need more community support financially or we need to resign ourselves to the fact that there just isn’t a large enough donor base in Madison to support a sustainable large scale arts project yet, even when we can justify it in theory.
We also need to rethink our approach to public policy and make culture and the arts front and center. This means primarily more flexible zoning so that small scale arts can thrive. The needs of arts organizations extend beyond the pervasive financial stressors that cripple their impact and leads on so much of the local arts coverage. Spaces like The Project Lodge, a cooperatively run DIY all ages arts space, struggle to remain active resources in the community, especially due to recent city intervention threatening the future of significant resources that have kept our young and emerging arts scene thriving and full of vitality at its own expense. We need this next generation of artists and audiences to be assimilated into this public conversation, as they are the ones who will sustain these projects into the future.
So what we are left with is this: Is the Overture Center a necessity in our community? Who will step up to make and support the argument financially? And what will happen if we can’t do that? These are the questions that an overdue citywide survey of our cultural landscape needs to address and without which we would be foolish to move forward. Bravo, Mayor Soglin, for leading this charge.