Monday, September 22, 2008

Liquid Overture

News came on Friday that Madison's ivory tower of the arts, the Overture Center, was being forced to liquidate its trust fund in the name of paying off some substantial debt. Given the current state of the markets, and the 2005 refinancing deal that basically relied on them never ever going bad, I can't say that this comes as much of a surprise--to me, or to anyone else, I suspect.

It's a shame, because while I have disagreed with much of the center's business plan since its inception, I've never wished to see it fail. Which isn't to say that it will, but this new development doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture.

The lowdown:
"The liquidation of the trust fund will have no noticeable effect on the Overture Center whatsoever in the short term," said Ald. Mike Verveer, who is a member of the Madison Cultural Arts District board that runs the Overture Center. "It's not as if there will be any theaters going dark, performances being canceled, wedding receptions and other parties needing to scramble to find new spaces."
That's good to hear, but we're talking short term. The longer-term looks a little sketchier:
The liquidated fund will pay off approximately $87 million of the Overture Center's $115 million of debt, leaving W. Jerome Frautschi, the major donor for the Overture Center, the city, and the Center itself in charge of the remaining $28 million. Due to built-in firewalls that were in the city's controversial refinancing in 2005, Frautschi will pay the $2.5 million annual debt service for the next two years and the Center will use its reserve fund for the third year, but Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the worst-case scenario for the city would be having to cover the third-year costs if the reserve fund runs dry before 2011. After 2011, the refinancing deal expires and all the parties will have to look at the remaining debt again, Cieslewicz said.
Thankfully, the city and the center have until 2011 to get their ducks in a row, and I'm hopeful that, as Mayor Dave himself says, this whole liquidation thing will spur people into serious action to make sure it doesn't come to a big taxpayer bailout (hmm, that sounds familiar). But we'll see.

My favorite part of the article, though, comes courtesy of Ald. Brenda Konkel, who makes this astute observation regarding the function of the center:
"I'm not even sure a lot of our community even particularly wanted [the Center], to tell you the truth," she said. "I think our community appreciates the arts, but we're more into local arts, and I don't think this venue that really promotes that very much."
And that's the rub. There was a lot of grumbling and protest over how the center was to be designed and used by much of the Madison community, most of which went relatively unheeded. The place payed a lot of lip service to local artists when it had its grand opening--I was even part of some of the theatre companies that were given time and space in which to perform there during the festivities*--but since then, the majority of what goes through the center seems to be national touring acts. Most of the people who attend functions there, too, seem to be coming from out of town. There's nothing inherently bad about either of those things, but Madisonians, it would appear, are more interested in local arts in more welcoming, local venues. I suspect the sterile white walls of the Overture Center are less-than appealing to many folks.

Perhaps if the center was more accommodating of local bands, artists, and functions, that would held to bring in more attendees and more cash. Perhaps not. It would, at least, make it more of a community space and not just an incongruous behemoth in the midst of otherwise homey State Street.

None of that will matter, of course, if the people who run the place can't get their financials in order. I wish them the best, honestly, because it would be nice to have the chance to transform the place into something the whole community can enjoy, and not have it become a stone around the city's neck.

*whole other story I could bitch about, but suffice to say that it wasn't the greatest experience ever.

(photo by Phil Ejercito, All Rights Reserved.)

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