Monday, November 23, 2009

Bailing Out The Overture Center

More than a decade ago, back in 1998, Madison businessman Jerry Frautschi made an absolutely stunning announcement. He was going to give the city an unbelievable sum of money - eventually totaling over 205 million dollars - to build a performing arts center.

No city this size in the world has ever been the recipient of such a huge gift.
Now, what they said would never happen is imminent. The taxpayers of Madison are perilously close to being liable for paying 2 to 3 million dollars a year to keep the Overture Center running. We midwesterners don’t subscribe to the old saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. And Madisonians analyze and debate everything.

So when Susie Bauman, who was Mayor then, said the taxpayers would NEVER be on the hook for the Overture Center, a lot of folks were skeptical. That was to be expected, though. This is Madison.

Trying to explain the intricacies of the financial maze that’s behind the Overture Center without causing you to stop reading and leave this website is a challenge I’m not up to, so I’m hoping that you’ll take my word that it is hopelessly complicated. The organizational structure and financing have been re-done many times in the past decade, trying to keep the Center afloat.

But now, for the first time ever, the outfit that runs the Overture Center, a separate entity called “Madison Cultural Arts District”…MCAD, has an operating deficit. They’re out of money and out of reserves. They’ve burned through all of Jerry Frautschi’s original gift, and another five million he generously put in a couple years ago when the Center faltered.

The bottom line is, the Overture Center has to drastically change the way it operates.

Once again, the arts mavens are going to meet with the financial mavens, hoping the bankers will forgive some of the debt, and approve still another round of financing to keep the doors open.

I’m not smart enough or conceited enough to make suggestions. This is a hugely complicated problem which doesn’t have a simple answer. And as snarky as I can be, I’m not as snarky as some of the people who’ve posted comments about the Overture Center on other websites.

Other communities our size have had decades of “base-building” and fund drives before they could afford to build a performing arts center. So it’s happening backwards here. We got the center; but we really don’t have a firm base of patrons and supporters.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, we were not “worthy” of the gift. Maybe Christmas came too early for Madison.


  1. IIRC, some OvCen money was in the good hands of Madoff. THAT couldn't have helped too much...

  2. I love the way people talk about Overture's problems without ever mentioning the elephant in the room. Dad actually has a point, although the Madoff money is the least of their worries, assuming they don't get sued.

    Overture is not in trouble because it's too large for the city. The facilities aren't that much larger than the old Civic Center and the city's a lot bigger than it was when that was built. It's also not really in trouble because of the way it operates. Bringing in more shows for the people crying elitism doesn't stand much chance of fixing the real problem.

    Overture is in trouble for the same reason that several Wisconsin high schools are/were in trouble. MCAD borrowed money to invest. (They took out a loan to finance construction and invested Frautschi's gift.) Then the economy collapsed. The investment money evaporated and, after liquidation, they're still sitting on almost $30 million in debt which is socking their operating budget with $300,000 payments *every month*.

    Had they simply built the center with the money Frautschi donated, Overture's early years may have been a little leaner but there'd be no crisis now. Somebody's going to have to eat that debt and nobody's jumping forward. My guess is that, after lots of hand-wringing, they'll come to some sort of agreement with the bank. I doubt M&I wants to take ownership of a $200-million facility with only one use and no buyers, especially if that brings it back on the property tax rolls.

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