Overture interior
Visitors make their way through the interior of the Overture Center in Madison on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

Last December, or what seems a decade ago, it appeared Madison's Overture problem was destined for resolution.

Just before the holidays, and before Gov. Scott Walker's debut emphatically changed the subject, the City Council approved a money and management agreement with Overture officials for the $205 million performing arts center. The strategy was meant to resolve a looming debt issue and put the arts center on firm footing. When it passed, Dave Cieslewicz heralded the vote as proving the city's "capacity to solve a really tough problem."

That was then -- and six months later, our former mayor's upbeat take has been replaced by a very different frame from the new mayor.

It might be possible for Paul Soglin to strike a grimmer tone on that December plan and Overture's current outlook. I'm just not sure how.

In sum, Soglin predicts the City Council's plan will fail and that he is powerless, absent council support, to alter that fate. He says he is resigned to picking up the pieces.

"The best I can do is put the community in a position that when this plan fails we might be able to right the ship," he says. "I do not know if we can. It may be too late by then."

"I am deeply concerned about it," he continues. "A majority of the council will not support the path I recommend, so the best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."

The mayor says early evidence shows that two premises of the Overture plan have already failed.

First, he says, the plan was built on the expectation that Overture would get 60 nights or more of popular, high-revenue Broadway shows for the fall and winter season and that the actual number is "somewhere in the 40s." Overture spokesman Robert Chappell, however, says the number is 49 and that the plan anticipated ramping up to 60-some nights, but not until the 2012-13 season.

Second, Soglin says the plan anticipated savings based on privatizing services such as technology support, and he's been told the lowest bid by an outside vendor was $40,000 more than what it costs for city workers to do the job. Chappell says no bidding has occurred, so he is unsure of Soglin's source. Soglin, in turn, stands by his assertion that he was contacted by Overture leaders about the IT problem.

Third, Soglin hears that private fundraising has been less than robust. Deirdre Garton, who chairs the nonprofit fundraising effort, says Overture will need to raise about $2.4 million per year to support operations, but that total was not expected this year. On Friday, she declined to give fundraising details, but said "we are in the thick of it now" and that progress is being made.

Soglin says his only plan at this point is to request a definitive study of the arts landscape in Madison. "I am going to ask for the funds for a study to bring in a really qualified consultant who understands the relationship between performing artists, performing arts groups, audiences and the necessary facilities," he says, adding that this should have been done when Overture was envisioned a dozen years ago.

Some council members have grumbled at Soglin's penchant for revisiting decisions they made before his election, and on that front, Overture is taking center stage.

Ald. Lauren Cnare, the council's new president, says she remains "perfectly comfortable" with the December plan that she and others developed for Overture. Cnare, who is keenly aware of Soglin's pessimism on the topic, says: "It would be such a travesty to undo any decision we have made in a big way. It's like an infant who has just pulled himself up to the coffee table" to learn to walk, and we "pull the table away and sell it at a rummage sale."

She adds, "So just when you exhale, we are going to muck around with it again? I have concerns about that." Cnare adds that she worries about the signal that would send to ticket buyers and donors.

When I interviewed Cieslewicz right after Soglin defeated him, he assessed his undoing. He said the furor over the Edgewater Hotel remodeling hurt him badly with isthmus and near east-side voters. And he pointed to the emergence of Soglin, a hero among Madison's left, as the only opponent who could have deprived him of a third term.

But looking back, it was Overture that got the Soglin campaign snowball rolling. Last summer, Cieslewicz appointed his old foe (he had defeated Soglin in 2003) to an ad hoc committee on Overture issues.

Soglin went all in, immersing himself in the vagaries of the issue. His efforts were applauded by council members at the time. In my conversations with Soglin about Overture last year, I was struck by his tenacity and, well, his wonkiness. And when Soglin called in December to confide that he was mulling a mayoral candidacy, which was a big surprise, he said he made the decision at a meeting on the Overture issue.

What drives Soglin and what many see as his glass-half-empty attitude toward the arts center? Well, he has always been invested in the Madison arts scene, including having daughters active in theater. In particular, he was a prime mover for the Madison Civic Center, Overture's considerably more modest predecessor. That was in the 1970s during a much earlier mayoral stint, and Soglin often alludes to that experience when talking Overture now. He orchestrated it by building grass-roots community support.

Overture, in contrast, was enabled by the breathtaking generosity of philanthropist Jerome Frautschi. That approach, however, meant less broad-based community involvement, a factor both Cieslewicz and Soglin lament.

Cnare says she senses that "there is something that is not the right fit about Overture" for Soglin. "It's like you have this fabulous pair of shoes and you love them and they are stunning, but they are just so darn uncomfortable."

Cnare and Soglin both point to the city budget later this year as a key decision point. Soglin worries how the city can afford the $2 million annual city subsidy promised to Overture as part of the December agreement. Cnare calls it a moral obligation.

But Soglin says that assumption was "pre-Walker," referring to dramatic reductions in state financial aid proposed by the Republican governor. "If the city has a $28 million (budget) shortfall and we have to look at cuts from 15 to 30 percent in all areas outside of police and fire, the question is, how can we sustain that $2 million?" he asks.

I reply: So we can't?

He does not answer.

Soglin does add: "The best I can do is wait for this to collapse and then just hope that the problem doesn't take down the rest of city government."

OK, then. Have a good day, arts enthusiasts.

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