Madison and the Overture Center: A blog duel

A couple weeks ago, Wyndham Manning and I got into a lengthy discussion in the least appropriate space short of adjacent stalls--Twitter. 140 characters at a time, in blasts that rarely maintained chronological order when viewed from above, we debated the merits of Madison's Overture Center for the Arts, and whether Madison was a city that could support such a large arts venue.

This conversation was spurred on by comments from newly-elected old mayor Paul Soglin. His outlook on Overture is grim, and his plans apparently so distasteful to the Common Council that he has little hope of salvaging the current operational model in any form.

"The best I can do is put the community in a position that when this plan fails we might be able to right the ship," he says. "I do not know if we can. It may be too late by then."

"I am deeply concerned about it," he continues. "A majority of the council will not support the path I recommend, so the best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."

I'm not a fan of this outlook; it sounds petty. Images of scuttling ships, arson for the insurance money, and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face all came rushing into my mind upon reading it.

So there are two questions. Can Madison support an arts venue with so many stages and seats and such a large infrastructure? And secondly, should it ever have been built in the first place?

One of Wyndham's postions throughout our dialogue was that the 1,000-seat Capitol Theater, formerly the Oscar J. Meyer Theater, was "enough." All the big shows that have come through Overture--Broadway shows, major recording artists, other stage performers--could just as well have been carried off in the Capitol. The Overture renovation wasn't needed.

I took a semi-random sampling of the venues coming up on the tour for Wicked, a production that recently ran in Overture's 2,200-seat main hall. The Creighton Orpheum Theater in Omaha, Nebraska (population: 409k) seats 2,600. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia (population: 578k) seats 2,900. The Peoria (Illinois, population 115k) Civic Center seats a massive 12,000 for stage events.

The Wharton Center in East Lansing staged a production of The Lion King in which the 2300-seat capacity was barely enough, according to management. I don't think a thousand-seat venue is going to be able to draw the kind of production Overture Hall can attract.

And according to Rob Chappell from Overture (in a press release dated 5/24/11), those big shows are drawing a lot of bodies to the venue.

Sales, attendance and fundraising results for the 2010/11 season at Overture Center for the Arts exceeded expectations and bode well for the future, Overture officials announced today.

The total number of Broadway subscriptions -- ticket packages that included Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Legally Blonde and Les Miserables -- came in at more than 5,300 -- more than double the total for 2009/10. And total Broadway attendance exceeded 87% of capacity.

While Chappell acknowledges that these shows don't generate a lot of retained revenue--much, I imagine, like convenience stores don't make money on fuel sales--they do generate visibility and consumer loyalty.

In his email to Wyndham and I, Rob addresses one of Wyndham's other complaints: that Overture is a black hole of sorts, drawing attention away from the small venues and local artists that are either bleeding overhead or leaving town completely. "[W]e booked about 100 touring artist performances altogether and local artists put on about 150 here in our building," Chappell says.

Overture Center has a lot of seats and stages, yes. Could it have been developed just as well with one fewer? Maybe. But it's there now, and doing a controlled burn on the investment--like Soglin seems to be resigned to doing--isn't going to fill the seats at Bartell, or Broom Street, or the Project Lodge. It's a matter of efficient utilization; smaller cities than Madison have supported similar venues without letting things "crash and burn".

My example of choice is Appleton, Wisconsin. Appleton's population is just over 78,000. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, with two stages totaling 2,500 seats (2,100 alone in the Thrivent Financial Hall), still manages to put on the same Broadway shows as Overture.

Using the metropolitan area populations for Appleton and Madison (source: Wikipedia), there are 144 available citizens per seat at the Performing Arts Center. For Overture Center's 3,701 total seats (according to its online seating chart site), there are 151 citizens per seat. The PAC generated its first annual gain in 2010, after opening in 2002. The Overture Center opened in 2004, and its financial state is the subject of this entire conversation.

Poorly managed? Sure. Inefficiently utilized? At times, probably. I'm not an expert on the performing arts, so much of my position is speculative. But if, in eight years, little Appleton can generate an annual performing arts gain from a strikingly similar profile of shows and events, then I think Madison's Overture Center can do the same, even considering the hit the arts have to endure in a down economy.

I say "can", because it cannot--it will not--if the leader of Madison's city government would rather let the entire operation fail than engage someone else's baby (philanthropist Jerome Frautschi got the ball rolling during Sue Baumann's administration, and it was built during Dave Cieslewicz's) and make it work. While it is perhaps not currently supporting Overture, I firmly believe that Madison can.