Let's Get Over It

Overture Center isn't an overpriced palace for the rich

Andy Wallman, head honcho of the creative communications company KW2 Ideas (formerly Knupp & Watson), had a really cool idea. Let’s bring together three supersmart, creative types to explore areas of their brain that business types might apply to the workplace. While much has been made of artistic minds that can’t balance a checkbook, I found it refreshing to, implicitly at least, acknowledge that companies and their leaders might innovate more if they crunched on numbers less.

Maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra was one of the panelists at the public event held at Sundance Theater, along with L’Etoile and Graze chef/proprietor Tory Miller and Scott Dikkers, founding editor of The Onion (a Madison original). DeMain is a Grammy-winning artist with a New York agent who books him as a guest conductor for orchestral gigs all over. We are lucky to have him, and I would also argue that he is lucky to have us—Madison, Wisconsin, home to Overture Center, one of the best performing arts facilities in the world. In his remarks DeMain acknowledged the opening of Overture as one of the highlights of his seventeen-year career here. Being able to creatively re-imagine the works of great composers in a state-of-the-art, acoustically perfect room such as Overture Hall must be nothing short of exhilarating.

“Madison had the vision to hire someone like me with a career on the outside,” DeMain told the creative-class audience of seventy-five people in industry sectors ranging from manufacturing, insurance, finance and health care to biotech, engineering, hospitality and law. “I am able to constantly put in perspective what I do here.” And what he’s done here is quite remarkable: When he came to Madison in 1993, he accepted the challenge to double the symphony’s attendance. Instead, he and his team, including executive director Rick Mackie, tripled it by engaging his musicians (employees) and his audience (consumers) in the creative process of selecting repertoires; by increasing the number of popular annual performances and extending the number of performances in a series (sustainable growth); by cultivating the next generation of concert-goers with community education and outreach (brand management); and by keeping ticket prices as affordable as possible (know your market).

In a marketplace as small as Madison, to be a successful live orchestra in an age of virtual dominance is impressive. But DeMain understands how unique our community is—the arts in our schools, in our homes, in our workplaces and in our public spaces are of supreme importance to us. It’s why businessman Jerry Frautschi chose to invest an extraordinary amount of money downtown, and why we can’t squander that kind of generosity and opportunity.

The perception that Overture is an overpriced palace for the rich is bunk. I’ll never forget opening weekend, watching Frautschi—grinning from ear to ear—holding the doors to State Street open as hundreds of us filed into the building. An easy PR move, sure, but also a significant gesture letting us know that the facility is open to you, me and anybody with a shirt and shoes seven days a week. Have you been to a free Kids in the Rotunda show on a Saturday morning? It’s a Madison melting pot.

Was it overbuilt? Well, not when you had a healthy trust fund in place to support it. Are some of its features over-the-top now, post-recession and with city ownership a distinct possibility? Yes, but smart creative types and smart business types have been doggedly pursuing a reasonable and sustainable operating model for more than two years. City staff and alders, Overture reps, and citizen committees of business and civic leaders have been working together to find a way to save and transform Overture into a truly one-of-a-kind community center for the arts. All the while, Overture has been open for business (The Lion King and Wicked, anyone?).

“Every artistic decision is a business decision,” DeMain told the “Creativitiy at Work” crowd. So let’s get down to business for the arts.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or bnardi@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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