New Overture Center president Tom Carto certainly didn't inherit a stable operation. The private trust fund that both subsidizes the three-year-old performing arts center and pays its construction debt failed to earn an expected 8.5% annual return and ultimately lost $1.7 million of value last year. Ticket sales for fiscal year 2007 are projected to be down 29% compared with the previous year, diminishing a much-needed revenue stream and adding to the impression that the center is in a financial pickle. As if that weren't enough, $735,000 of the center's 2007 budget is covered with money that might not be available in the future.
That's a heckuva a welcome mat.
But the situation may not be as bleak as it seems. Andrew Taylor, director of the UW's Bolz Center for Arts Administration, says new performing arts facilities often have to face reality after excitement about their opening has died down. Carto didn't sign on to a well-oiled machine, but he doesn't face certain failure, either.
"I wouldn't freak out," says Taylor. "It takes awhile for a community to understand what it has, and it takes awhile for the management team to get the rhythm going. It's not unusual to be in this place. But it will certainly be a challenge going forward."
Part of that challenge is booking financially viable seasons that don't include a big Broadway blockbuster like Phantom of the Opera that can drive up income with multi-week runs. Overture enjoyed enormous success with Phantom in 2005, but Taylor notes that with 140 arts facilities around the country looking to book Broadway-tested cash cows, relying on them to balance the books has become a losing strategy.
Instead of looking to Broadway to fix the budget crunch, local arts consultant Mary Berryman Agard suggests that Carto and his staff need to revamp Overture's approach to programming and marketing. Among other things, they need to partner with outside promoters and develop multi-day, high-profile events that will attract audiences from well beyond Dane County and stimulate funding from corporations and other large donors. Madison is a small market with a big facility, she says, and the challenge for Overture is to broaden its market.
"That means really working hard toward entrepreneurial arrangements that do not compromise creativity," says Berryman Agard. "It means developing signature events that draw people and resources from great distances. My feeling is that we need an aggressive approach to every known sophisticated marketing strategy because we have a facility that's a little bit too big for our town in terms of cost. It's like somebody gave us a thoroughbred and we'd been used to taking care of a small pony."
Carto was unavailable for comment, but Overture's interim communications director, Nancy Gores, says that he's already working on new approaches to everything from booking to marketing to fund-raising. That's important, she adds, since the center's old administration wasn't given to innovation, often relying on a business model that hadn't changed much since the 1980s.
"One of the things that we're going to do is targeted media buys and using our money in a much smarter way, looking at what kind of a cross-section of the audience we've been reaching," says Gores. "We need to make people from further afield understand that this is a cultural destination. That wasn't done in the past."
Whatever happens with new programming and marketing, ticket revenues won't ever balance the books, and Gores says Carto understands as much. She says a coordinated fund-raising effort is definitely in Overture's future, and Carto won't be shy about asking the community it serves to help pay the freight.
Berryman Agard says that lots of innovation will be required to fix Overture's financial problems.
"We need a bigger pie here," she says. "That extends to public money as well as to ticket revenues. So far the Overture Center has only turned to the city in a significant way. This is a regional facility. It needs to be supported by surrounding municipalities, by the city of Madison, by Dane County and conceivably the state."