Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Making overtures to better management

Who's running the show over at the Overture Center, anyhow? The way they've been handling their trust fund for keeping the place afloat, you'd think it was a bunch of English majors. Actually, strike that--I was an English major and I think I would have had better sense than these folks. That is, I would have hired people who knew what they were doing, knew not to trust everything to our country's extremely volatile stock market, and knew not to blow whatever cash they blew on architect Cesar Pelli's soulless design (don't even get me started on that damn Jello mold of a dome).

After a poor performance in 2005, the arts district and a seperate trust fund board opted to undertake a refinancing plan, one which many people, including Mayor Dave, were opposed to. Apparently the opposition was for good reason, as the fund continues to do badly.

According to the WSJ:

The trust, which must be at least $104 million to meet all commitments, sank from $105.83 million on July 13 to $100.86 million on Aug. 15, doubling any prior decline and nearly forcing the district to tap other sources to meet debt payments.

The fund recovered to $103.31 million -- still below the $104 million mark -- by Sept. 28, according to the latest report by Madison comptroller Dean Brasser. The trust has since added another $400,000, the Overture Foundation said.

Overture Center was built with a $205 million gift from philanthropist W. Jerome Frautschi. About half the gift was put in a trust fund for operations and maintenance, while the rest was coupled with a $115 million loan to build the Cesar Pelli-designed facility on State Street.

But the original financing plan, which didn 't involve the city, failed in a weak investment market. In late 2005, the council approved a controversial refinancing deal, with the city providing a financial backstop on some debt for six years.

Under the deal, the trust covers about $7.45 million in annual debt payments and pays another $1.4 million every year to Overture 's operations and maintenance reserve. To do so, the trust must earn a 8.25 percent rate of return over the long term.

The trust, which stood at $109.3 million in late 2005, has fluctuated with the market and as it makes required payments.

After months of effort, the trust fund board earlier this year began a new investment strategy designed to get a strong return but better protect against market volatility.

But in the third quarter, due mainly to poor investment performance, the trust declined to a point where it couldn 't meet all commitments, said Chabot, who also sits on the trust fund board.

The trust 's performance came close to partial default, Chabot confirmed. If the trust drops between $100 million and $97 million -- as it nearly did -- Frautschi would cover the first $5 million in debt payments, then the arts district, and finally the city. No payment would be made to the reserve.

If the trust falls below $97 million, creditors would enter discussions with the trust fund board to evaluate the need for change.

I'm not sure what's going on, but I can't help but feel like better planning and more knowledgeable people running the show would have helped. And they may want to seriously consider making changes now, instead of waiting until the whole thing drops into default and everyone else has to help bail them out.

Between this mess and other little signs like Overture boosting their facility fees from 2 to 3 dollars last year, something just doesn't smell right. They're charging us extra to see shows, extra money that the performer's don't see, by the by--and they're charging those performers just to have merchandise tables out in the lobby in front of their shows, too.

The Overture Center was supposed to be a community arts space--welcoming to both national touring acts and local troupes. They put forth a token olive branch to the local arts community when they first opened, but, outside of the galleries, I haven't seen much local content since (and I mean really local--not just the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the occasional jazz band in the Rotunda). That might have something to do with the high rental fees charged for the various spaces (and they charge extra for tables and chairs).

Perhaps if they were able to get their act together with the financing/trust fund, they wouldn't feel the need to charge unreasonable fees for their rentals and their patrons. And that might increase use and attendance, which would in turn increase their revenues. Now there's an idea.


eracette@overturecenter.com said...

You may want to be aware of Overture's Community and Education programs:

Overture Center’s community outreach, educational and accessibility programs include free and low-cost events designed to make the arts available to populations that are typically under-served. These programs specifically target youth and students, especially those at risk; older adults; people with disabilities; people of color; and people with low incomes. To achieve this mission, Overture Center works in partnership with social service agencies, schools, government, business and corporate community members as well as other arts organizations and agencies.

Overture OnStage ¡ This performing arts series for students reflects Overture Center’s commitment to youth and the conviction that the arts are essential to the education and the development of all children. The series of low-cost school day performances includes national and international dance, music, and theater. Spotlight: Educator Resource Guides, provided for each performance, give teachers additional resources to help make connections between the performance and the classroom. Overture gives extensive subsidies that enable economically disadvantaged students to attend. Approximately forty-five performances are presented annually, and students of all ages, teachers and parents from public, private and home-schools throughout south-central Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa are represented in the OnStage audiences.

Take 10 ¡ Students in grades K-12 and their teachers can purchase ten-dollar tickets for specific performances by presenting student or educator identification (or proof of age for students) at the ticket office window.

Kids in the Rotunda ¡ This popular program of free performances for kids and families runs every Saturday, September through December, and resuming January through May. Shows start at 9:30 am, 11am, and 1 pm. Storytellers, jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, theater troupes and multicultural artists are presented on the Rotunda Stage. The 1pm performances are sign language interpreted.

Meet the Artist ¡ Overture Center for the Arts presents post-performance interviews and discussions with national and international artists. These programs are held in conjunction with performances at Overture Center.

Artist Residencies ¡ National and international touring artists collaborate with area schools and community organizations for residencies of all kinds including school assemblies, mini-performances, master classes and workshops. These custom-designed performances and workshops present quality artists with a track record of success in educational and community settings.

Kennedy Center: Partners in Education ¡ Overture Center for the Arts, and the Madison Metropolitan School District are members of the Kennedy Center: Partners in Education Program. Over the years the partnership has presented many participatory Educator Workshops such as Exploring Character Education Through Puppetry, and Exploring World Cultures Through Music. The partnership provides professional development programs in the arts for teachers.

Overture Galleries ¡ Overture Center for the Arts is committed to showcasing outstanding visual art created in our local communities. Overture Center’s three public galleries radiate off the sunlit Rotunda Lobby on each of three levels, offering area artists a generous 900 square feet of exhibition space to showcase their work. Overture Galleries are free and open to the public. Hours are Mon through Thu 8:30 am - 5:30 pm, Fri and Sat 10:30 am - 9 pm and Sun 12 pm – 5 pm and when the building is open for performances.

Community Ticket Program ¡ Overture Center for the Arts offers subsidized tickets for individuals who might not otherwise be able to attend performances. Overture collaborates with over 100 Madison area social service and community organizations to facilitate the distribution of approximately 6000-8000 vouchers per season redeemable for tickets to shows.

International Festival ¡ An Overture Friends Presentation
Celebrate the cultures of the Madison community with free performances, workshops, cultural foods and a craft bazaar featuring artisans selling clothing, crafts and jewelry from around the world.

Children’s Arts Festival ¡ An Overture Friends Presentation
This free festival offers an exhilarating mix of performances and workshops throughout Overture Center and features theater, music and dance for children age five through twelve.

Overture After Work ¡ An Overture Friends Presentation
Once again the happy hours return with free music in the spacious Overture Lobby on the third Thursday of the month. Unwind and enjoy free music with your friends from 5 – 7 pm.

Musical Memories ¡ Now in its fifteenth season, Musical Memories is a matinee series of free performances designed especially for older adults. A different featured performance is presented for each of the three programs. The performance is preceded by a concert on the Overture Concert Organ by resident organist and curator Samuel Hutchison. Before each show, folks are invited to gather and mingle over free refreshments in Overture Lobby.

Duck Soup Cinema ¡ These light-hearted presentations bring back the Capitol Theater's early years as a silent-film era movie palace. A classic silent movie accompanied by live music played on the Grand Barton Organ, and proceeded by vaudeville style entertainment on stage, magic in the lobby, and a chance to win door prizes, hosted by funnyman Joe Thompson. Tickets are $4 for adults, $3 for children 12 and under. All seats reserved.

Emily said...

Thanks for sharing, it's reassuring stuff. Consider me mostly corrected. I still take issue with how things have been managed (I know, I know--put up or shut up), and more-so how performers are treated. That they're charged a fee simply for putting out merch and info tables for their shows is ridiculous, and something that practically no other venues do. I was also with three separate performance groups that put on shows at Overture (during the grand opening), and the treatment we received was less than good.

But I'm willing to stand corrected on the amount of local stuff that goes through the place, and I'm glad to be. I'd rather have nothing to complain about, frankly.

The Lost Albatross