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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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ARTS

Now hiring: Overture Center CEO
As Overture faces a big transition, the search for a boss is under way


Credit:Kyle Metcalf
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I have a vivid memory of the day Overture Center opened in 2004. As a glut of Madisonians streamed in, Jerry Frautschi himself held open one of the massive, heavy doors facing State Street.

While Frautschi, who donated an astonishing $205 million for the building's construction, is a name everyone knows, he's not a face everyone recognizes. I'm sure many filing through the doors did not know who he was, and that was perfectly fitting: His gesture was refreshingly anonymous and welcoming. It was an overture to the public at a moment of great promise and good vibes.

Now, several years down the line, many locals have grown weary - and confused - by the saga of Overture's finances and ownership structure. Already complex, they were made even more so by the national economic crash in 2008.

In May, the Overture Center Foundation's board of directors announced its intent to open a CEO search. The contract of current Overture CEO and president Tom Carto, who arrived here in 2007 after managing the much smaller Renaissance Performing Arts Center in Mansfield, Ohio, is up at the end of 2011.

The board encouraged Carto to apply for the new position, and he is. He will automatically be considered a finalist by the board. The national hunt, to be conducted by an executive-search firm, comes at a time of both tremendous risk and opportunity for reinvention.

In 2012, the facility will transfer to the ownership of the Overture Center Foundation, a private, nonprofit entity, although there are still some lingering questions about that transition. The shift, which Carto pushed for, is one reason he wants to stay.

"As far as the new foundation is concerned," he says, "I'd really like to be in charge of a private entity that's a single entity."

Under the current arrangement, Overture is overseen by various entities, including the city of Madison, the Madison Cultural Arts District and the Overture Center Foundation.

"It's difficult to be a leader when you're serving different masters," Carto says.

Says Andrew Taylor of the UW-Madison's Bolz Center for Arts Administration, "On Jan. 1, we have a new organization in Madison that did not exist before. Basically, Overture 2.0 is a very different beast, so it's perfectly acceptable to ask out loud, 'Who should be leading this organization?'"

It's a question that invites scrutiny of Carto's tenure thus far and, more important, a look toward the future, whatever it may bring.

What does Overture need most in a CEO at this point in its evolution? And can Overture still make good on its immense promise to be a lively, financially healthy center for the arts, one that will serve this community well into the future?

Running a major facility like Overture is a many-sided task. Though it's partly an arts job, the duties are just as much - if not more - financial and political in nature. The CEO must not only lead a professional staff and oversee programming that will attract a wide range of attendees, but also shore up support among government officials, foundations, individual donors and others with the power to influence its future.

Says Deirdre Garton, chair of the Overture Center Foundation, "It's not just bringing acts into town, but actually promoting the arts in the community; that's always been part of the mission. But one has to do a lot of fundraising to be able to do all that, so it all goes together."

Overture's new plan requires it to eventually more than double the amount of money it brings in through fundraising, so that particular demand of the job has been ratcheted up.

Other challenges add to the complexity of the CEO's task. One is that Overture is, possibly, overbuilt for a city Madison's size. "I think it is absolutely the case," says local arts expert Mary Berryman Agard, a consultant who is spearheading the city's cultural plan.

Looking at the national picture, she argues, you'd expect a city Madison's size to have an arts center with an annual budget ranging from $3.5 million to $5.5 million. Overture's annual operating budget is $14 million. "It's not a question of, 'Is it an exciting vision?' The fact of the matter is, there is simply no other example of an economic base our size supporting a center the size of Overture."

The challenge of that big budget doesn't necessarily relate to ticket sales. On that score Overture has done quite well, bringing in top-selling hits like The Lion King and Wicked in its Broadway series. The real challenge is donated income.

"When you look at how fundraising works, there is a relationship between the scale of the community and the amount of philanthropic money it can give," says Agard.

Others, like Taylor, take a softer approach to Overture's size, calling it "aspirational."

"It's a higher quality, a greater size and complexity than for most communities of this size," he says. "That's an extra challenge, but also extraordinarily powerful."

Another issue a new CEO must face is political uncertainty, as represented by Mayor Paul Soglin's now-infamous comment in May that Overture would "crash and burn" after its 2012 transition. As Taylor sees it, "There are two problems: that he said it, and that he thinks it." As the board conducts its national search for a CEO, the comment has the potential to deter job candidates.

"One of the primary partners for the job is the city, so it would be a concern for me [if I were a potential candidate] that [Soglin] has little to no faith in the success of the operation," says Taylor. "That also signals to donors there's concern, and they maybe shouldn't invest."

Carto seems unfazed by Soglin's comments.

"Our challenge will be to win him over with the operation," he says. "The onus is on us to show that this model will work, and we're capable of the fundraising, and can bring half a million people downtown each year who spend a lot of money. We have a job to do...but any performing arts center needs the support of its mayor and its council."

Despite the clouds, this could be a time of opportunity for an Overture CEO. Anne Katz, director of Arts Wisconsin, a Madison-based group devoted to arts advocacy statewide, would like to see the public discussion reframed. "It's a resource to be maintained and nurtured," she says of Overture, "not a problem to be solved."

Katz says Overture can benefit from focusing not only on itself, but also on the larger arts community. "Tom [Carto] has a good grasp on that," says Katz, "opening the center tangibly and intangibly, bringing people into the center and bringing the center out into the community."

Since Frautschi made his donation, "the whole conversation about the arts in Madison has been about Overture," says Katz. "But Overture is just one thing. It's a big star in the galaxy, but just one part of the galaxy."

Other opportunities for a new CEO could arise from audience development - that is, broadening the pool of people who come to Overture for ticketed and free events. Agard recommends that in the new era, the arts center think big by creating a large-scale, signature event.

"A classic approach would be to create an identity, a festival of some kind - something like Spoleto or another nationally recognized event," she says, citing South Carolina's 34-year-old fest. Such a festival could be "bringing in, every single year, a dazzling array of nationally, if not internationally, recognized artists." Its high profile would increase "the likely space from which you [could] cultivate donors, as well as ticket buyers."

"I've always thought that Madison is a perfect possibility for a major festival in this country," says Carto. "Overture could be an anchor for that, but it could also involve the university, MATC, just about all of the arts in greater Madison."

Talk of a Madison Spoleto recalls the words of Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Two summers ago, Kaiser breezed through Madison on his 50-state "Arts in Crisis" speaking tour, which, despite its dire title, was largely upbeat.

Speaking in Overture's ornate Capitol Theater, Kaiser delivered his core message: that, despite a dismal economy, it's no time for arts organizations to think small. He stressed bold programming and said arts leaders should emphasize the positive and think long-term. "When all [arts organizations] do is focus on today...very few new people are going to care about you," Kaiser said.

Of course, selling bold programming can be a tall order, and it's difficult for arts organizations to be daring when the bottom line is so crucial. The Lion King and Wicked weren't radical choices for Overture's Broadway series, but, as attendance showed, there's a wide audience here for family-friendly shows with instant name recognition. I'm guessing many of the young people in the crowds for those events, all dressed up and visibly jazzed to be there, were at their first big performing arts event - and that's a good thing.

Obviously, as Overture nears its next crucial juncture, it needs a dynamic leader, be it Carto or a newcomer. But let it be said: No one can truly be successful in that role without many others working toward the facility's health.

Says the UW's Taylor, "The CEO is absolutely important, but a CEO without the full support of a whole bunch of people" - meaning city, county and state officials, as well as Overture staff - "cannot be effective. As we get excited about a new leader, we have to ensure that everyone around the building is a leader as well, and lined up to make sure it succeeds."

Taylor says this most visible of job openings is "high risk and high opportunity." He hopes it "attracts someone who wants to make [Overture] a transformative center."

"Under the right circumstances, the right leader could make a very, very important contribution," says Agard. "Overture has the potential to drive a huge amount of creative energy in this community." That person, whoever he or she may be, can make Overture into "not the monkey on the city's back, but the wonderful thing it has the capacity to be."

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