Did you see Lyle Lovett at the Overture Center a few weeks ago? The show was marvelous. His tightly rehearsed 17-piece band featured some all-star session players who seldom take to the road. Is there a more fluid drummer in the world than Russ Kunkel?
The next night I was back at the Overture for the opening of the Chuck Close print show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. I loved and hated it. Some of the serial images seemed wildly repetitious to the point of visual overload. But then I found myself sucked in by Close's visual tricks ' splatterings of paint that were indecipherable up close but transformed into an image when I stepped back. My jaw dropped in delight.
Overture is an outstanding cultural venue. As someone who's seen 17 concerts and plays there in the nearly two years since it's opened, I'm grateful for Jerry Frautschi's $205 million gift.
Yet Overture got some things wrong, and its finances pose a long-term threat to Madison taxpayers. The question is: Can Madison learn from the mistakes?
Mistake 1: Allowing politics to trump design. Overture is a case in point of how Madison's much-celebrated (and often castigated) commitment to public comment sometimes destroys the city's chance for great architecture.
Because of its savvy outreach effort and judicious compromises with potential opponents, the Overture project sailed through the city's approval process relatively smoothly. Suddenly the town that couldn't put two bricks together pulled off first Monona Terrace, then Overture.
But at what a cost to design? I understand the desire to keep the historic Capitol Theater with its Moorish movie palace swank in the mix of the new complex. (I've only seen one show in the thoroughly revamped theater and don't have a settled opinion yet on how it functions as a performance space.) The exterior, however, is a joke.
It's pure Disneyland, what architectural critics call "faÃadism." In other words, the movie palace faÃade has absolutely no structural connection to the building behind it and doesn't even serve as the entrance to the refashioned Capitol Theater. (The doors open to a humdrum Overture hallway, and are usually locked, at that.)
This isn't preservation; it's the illusion of preservation. Sure, it bought the acquiescence of Madison's vocal preservationist community. But it also tied the hands of architect Cesar Pelli, perhaps preventing him from coming up with a truly landmark 21st-century building for Madison.
To be sure, faÃadism can work. For my money, the 1920's Yost's department store faÃade (a classic Frank Riley design) at the main entrance provides a meaningful connection to the city's architectural history. Yost's always was the class building of State Street, and using it as the signature view of Overture makes great sense.
Too bad the one great visual corridor to Overture is destroyed by the skywalk across Dayton Street. Now, there's an esthetic disaster. Which brings us to...
Mistake #2: Caving in to a building owner who played the elitist card against Overture. Preserving that awful skywalk destroyed the only postcard approach to Overture: Walking or driving up Dayton Street from Wisconsin Avenue dramatically frames the building entrance. Try it yourself and see if you don't agree with me. The skywalk is a blot on a potentially great streetscape.
Chalk it up to a weak-kneed political decision by city hall to satisfy faux populists and a noisy building owner who needs the skywalk for handicap access.(Maybe the city should have helped him build an accessible elevator in his building.) I hold out hope that one night soon, Jerry Frautschi and George Austin will polish off several bottles of wine, then engage in a surreptitious act of controlled demolition.
Mistake #3: Preserving the pristine building exterior from signage. What's inside? You can't even tell from the street because there's nada signage. Even the art center, which occupies the premier space for pedestrian visibility, is limited to a single kiosk to announce its presence.
Astonishingly, thousands of daily passersby are left clueless ' there are no signs on the building, no blurbs on the kiosks, not even banners flying from the building ' trumpeting that Overture is home to the Madison Symphony, the Madison Rep, CTM Madison Family Theater and six other groups.
How dumb is that in our era of marketing-savvy commerce? Stunningly so. These groups are all groaning under the heavier production costs of their new facilities. CTM has already buckled and collapsed under the pressure of the added expenses, and the estimable Madison Rep has been forced into a sobering retrenchment.
The Rep needs more bodies in the seats. Houses at two-thirds capacity on the weekend can spell disaster. It needs a street presence ' signs, banners, kiosks ' shouting "We're Here!" to those thousands of passersby. How else do you create excitement and interest?
Mistake #4: Not programming enough free events. Paul Kosidowski, writing in these pages a few weeks ago, pointed out how crucial the old Crossroads was to the Civic Center for casually pulling the public into the building for children's shows. (It also, I would add, served as a short-cut to traverse the downtown.) The Crossroads functioned surprisingly well as a town square within the building.
Overture so far has no similar democratizing feature, and this only adds to complex's hoity-toity stand-offishness. This is not good. Not only because Frautschi dedicated the arts complex to the whole community, but because at some point the community may be asked to dig into its pockets to maintain Overture.
Mistake #5: A speculative investment plan jeopardizes Overture's finances. The notion that Frautschi's investment trust will return 8% each and every year to subsidize Overture's operating costs and fund future repairs is, to say the least, highly optimistic. And in fact, the returns of the last several years have fallen well short of this mark.
I'll bet a sawbuck to the first taker that city taxpayers will have to pony up money in a decade or so when Overture will need repairs and updating.
At that point, we'll be wondering why the city wasn't running Overture in the first place. And that may prove to be the biggest mistake of all.