During this Christmas week, here’s something different — a topic wholly upbeat and Madison-centric, one all in our city should celebrate.
At minimum, it’s a one-week respite from braying Republican presidential candidates, laments about yet another diabolical Capitol assault on progressive policy, and anything about Scott Walker.
Instead, we pause to celebrate the multi-year winning streak at the Overture Center for the Arts.
Madison’s cultural palace now has been operating in the black for the past four years as a nonprofit. Overture has surpassed Milwaukee as the most popular venue for Broadway shows in Wisconsin and its number of Broadway subscribers — 6,500 — exceeds Overture’s internal goal by 25 percent.
It’s been an incalculable positive for the urban housing market as well as the city’s retail, hotel and restaurant sectors, and has successfully exposed thousands of low-income children and adults to the arts through Overture’s multiple venues and programs.
Before the technology sector blossomed as the critical catalyst in Madison’s future economy, Overture was there creating positive ripples toward a healthier, more vibrant downtown.
The history around an arts venue on State Street dates to the 1970s with an initial and successful vision by Paul Soglin, mayor then and now. Madison was able to vastly up its game a decade ago with the staggering $205 million gift from philanthropist Jerry Frautschi to re-imagine the aging Madison Civic Center site into the magnificent Overture complex.
That past and the roles of both men have been chronicled, as were the tough times that followed when the Great Recession ruined the plan to use investment income to maintain the elaborate facility.
What has been less publicized, though, is how Ted DeDee, Overture’s president and CEO since 2012, and its board of directors have quietly managed operations and effectively generated contributions to make “issues” at Overture pretty much a non-story. The annual city subsidy has settled at $1.75 million, which seems a bargain given its economic impact, and these days is provoking zero controversy at city hall.
Good news, to tweak the saying, is usually no news.
DeDee was hired in early 2012 by the nonprofit board that assumed Overture oversight at the start of that year. DeDee came from the region near Columbus, Ohio, where he oversaw the building and opening of an arts center, and before that had worked in Nashville, Dallas and Rochester, New York, over a 35-year career.
Last week, I asked Soglin, who was once a skeptic of the opulent scale and arcane governance structure at Overture, about DeDee. He said, “I don’t know how we could have gotten a better director for the facility. He gets all the different aspects” of running it.
Soglin credits DeDee for understanding Overture’s complicated economics, for the need to offer diverse programming reflecting diversity in the city, and the importance of exposing the young and old of modest means to the arts.
“I am not close enough to know what is going on in all those areas, but I know they are all on his agenda,” Soglin says. “We seem to be on a solid (budget) basis year to year.”
And Soglin cited the larger effects: “It’s important to businesses hoping to attract employees to relocate and then stay here.”
Likewise, Mike Verveer, who represents downtown on the City Council and has served on Overture and Civic Center boards since the 1990s, says in an interview that many of his business constituents often cite Overture’s importance for the vitality of downtown.
Verveer cites Soglin and Frautschi as visionaries, then adds: “Thanks to the excellent leadership of Ted DeDee and the entire staff and a volunteer board that does a tremendous amount of fundraising, and to tremendous support from the community, we have today something I think most communities of our size would envy.”
One of DeDee’s key contributions to Overture’s recent success is the emphasis on Broadway shows, but he says in an interview that when he arrived, some doubted the Madison market could support even five full weeks of them. This season, there are 11 weeks.
“Those people did not understand the potential market that Madison has, and basically our market is south-central Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, southern Minnesota, and northern Illinois,” DeDee says. “We can look at where people are coming from when they buy tickets online. We see where their credit card shows that they’re coming from places like Rockford.”
He says about 77 percent of Overture’s budget is generated by users through ticket sales, concessions, rentals to resident groups, to other nonprofits and commercial promoters, as well as for events such as weddings and corporate receptions. That percentage, DeDee says, is significantly higher than most similar facilities.
Looking ahead, DeDee says Overture has a goal of raising $5 million by 2017 as insurance against unexpected expenses. Or, as DeDee puts it, “if the roof caved in, if there was a fire that was beyond what our insurance would cover … who knows?”
Overall, he is bullish: “Still, things are looking good. People are buying tickets, we’ve been adding more activities, people are supporting the 11 weeks of Broadway, and the resident groups are doing really well. Everybody doing activities in Overture seems to be doing extremely well and doing a great job in their programming and attracting audiences. That, we think, will continue.
“We’re not getting too giddy about it, but being very purposeful about what we’re programming, not getting too risky on some of the shows that we’re bringing, but we’re also still kind of looking towards the long term.”
It seems we can leave that long term in DeDee’s hands. But in the short term — especially this holiday week — a feel-good update seemed in order.
Once again Madison, with its enormous well of civic pride and legion of selfless, generous people, gets something right. Amid so many other tough topics, that is worth celebrating.