Friday, August 28, 2009

A Cautionary Tale from Wisconsin

Posted by Bruce Miller
(This is an updated and amended version of a previous post.)

During recent meetings with Peggy Baggett, Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and Amy Dorfman, Program Director for the Shubert Foundation, Phil and I were asked to respond to the sad news coming from Wisconsin—the closing of Madison’s only professional theatre, the much loved Madison Rep (their bare stage is pictured above and to the right).

Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, a city renowned for its appreciation of the arts. Madison Rep had been nobly serving its capital city for 40 years. In some circles—not all—the Rep’s closing is discussed in relation to the 2004 opening of the new and restored Overture Center, the impressive performing arts complex that includes and surrounds the historic Capitol Theater in downtown Madison.

Word-of-mouth indicates that two of the reasons that led to the closing of Madison Rep were these:
1 In terms of ticket sales, Madison Rep found it difficult to compete with the heavily marketed and highly commercial “Broadway” series at the Ovation Center.
2 In terms of contributions, Madison Rep found it increasingly difficult to raise the funds they needed once the financial troubles of the Ovation Center began putting increased pressure on Madison’s giving community.

Honestly, I don’t know if these word-of-mouth speculations are true or not. No one who has shared them with us is opposed to the Overture Center. No one is trying to place blame or accuse anyone of bad intentions. Everyone, including me, is trying merely to examine the situation to figure out what went wrong. Armed with this knowledge, everyone hopes to prevent a reoccurrence of Wisconsin’s bad news in other states across the country.

I thank Robert Chappell, spokesperson for the Overture Center (pictured to the left), for correcting me when I included some slightly off kilter information regarding the Overture Center in a previous iteration of this posting. I thank him also for adding his perspective, which I quote below.

Here's how Mr. Chappell explains the Overture Center's connections to other Madison performing arts facilities: The "Capitol Theater opened in 1928. In the mid-1970s, the city bought it and built the Madison Civic Center around it. The Civic Center opened in 1980. Also within the Civic Center was Isthmus Playhouse, which became home to Madison Repertory Theatre. In 1998, the arts community and city government decided that the Civic Center would expand and become the Overture Center for the Arts. In 2004, 'Phase 1' of the Overture Center opened, followed by 'Phase 2' in 2006. Part of 'Phase 2' was the renovated Capitol Theater and a renovated Playhouse, which continued to be home to the Rep."

Heralded as a major economic development initiative for downtown, the Overture Center was championed by Madison’s business and civic leaders. The Overture Center has been bringing "Broadway" to Madison since the early 80s when its precursor operated as the Civic Center.

In 2005, the Overture Center refinanced its construction debt when a trust fund that "was supposed to pay for construction debt lost value after 9/11." In 2009, three Wisconsin banks threatened the foreclosure of the Overture Center if the debt owed by the Overture Development Corp. was not repaid soon.

The “Broadway” series in Madison is a cornerstone of the Overture Center’s business plan. Large marketing budgets, with major dollars coming from locally generated contributions, were developed to buy TV and other advertising for the “Broadway” series. As more Madisonians began attending the “Broadway” series, attendance at Madison Rep began a gradual decline.

"Those two things are unrelated," Robert Chappell commented to me. "The Broadway series brings quite a different audience than the Rep did. The Rep produced primarily straight plays, with an occasional musical. Overture's Broadway season was and is exclusively musicals."

Many of you who read this blog may remember that TheatreVirginia’s subscription decline from 12,000 in the early 90s to just over 2,000 in 2002 was inversely proportional to the rise in subscriptions to Richmond’s Broadway Under the Stars. Madison Rep had 2,400 subscribers when it closed; TheatreVirginia had 2,300.

Faced with declining ticket sales and disappearing contributions (based in part, some say, on the increasing calls for funding of the new and financially strapped Overture Center), Madison Rep recorded accumulated deficits of $140,125 in 2004-05, $357,279 in 2005-06, and $465,850 in 2006-07. A major Save the Rep campaign in 2007 reduced the accumulated deficit only minimally, resulting in a 2007-08 accumulated deficit of $424,888, more than 20% of annual operating budget.

After reading the first sentence of that last paragraph in the earlier iteration of this post, Robert Chappell commented: "We feel strongly that we (the Overture Center) do not compete with our resident companies for contributions, and in fact go out of our way to support their fundraising efforts."

In the fall of 2008, the recession hit and caused additional declines in ticket sales and contributions at Madison Rep. Accumulated debt rose to over a half million. In March of 2009, the nonprofit company closed its doors forever.

Many performing arts centers enter into non-compete agreements with the symphonies, ballet and opera companies that rent their facilities, but seldom with the major nonprofit theatres in their communities. Statements have been made in Richmond that a successful “Broadway” series will increase ticket sales to local theatres. “A rising tide lifts all ships” has been repeated many times. This is a catchy and sometimes relevant slogan, but I don’t know of any experienced arts leader who honestly believes it applies in these cases, at least in the short to mid-term.

I'm grossly over simplifying the complex Wisconsin story. This is a cautionary tale, after all, and not meant to be a work of journalism. I don't mean these meanderings to reflect poorly on the Overture Center, Madison Rep or any entity, about which I know only what I read and hear. If you live in Wisconsin, please don't think I'm trying to represent myself as any kind of expert with regard to your local issues.

Having said this, I believe our honest conversations with national arts leaders about the closing of the Rep have been and will continue to be informative and helpful. Those who don't examine history are doomed to repeat it. Conversations about the troubles at Madison Rep challenge us in constructive ways.

At Barksdale and Theatre IV, we are not blind to the comparisons between Madison and Richmond. Nonetheless, we remain cautious but confident. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

No comments: