When Overture Center for the Arts debuted in 2004, there were two common complaints outside the arts community from those seeking reasons to grouse.
One was that the breathtaking downtown arts venue was overly ornate — too fussy and fancy for a community that sees itself more Birkenstock than Gucci.
The other was that it was simply too big.
When I talked this week to Ted DeDee, who will retire next spring after six seasons as Overture’s president and CEO, I thought of something Jerry Frautschi told me in 2009.
Frautschi, a fifth-generation Madisonian, is the philanthropist who, with spouse Pleasant Rowland, gave an astonishing $205 million to build Overture. At the time, it was the largest single gift for performing arts in American history.
Frautschi was discussing Overture with Cap Times Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel and me, and Zweifel asked about the criticism that Overture was overly large.
“Yes, I’ve heard that (critique) but … I didn’t build this for you and me,” Frautschi said. “I built this for our grandchildren. If you build it for the size of the city today, 20 years from now, Madison could be double the size and people are going to say it’s too small.”
Well, Overture is 13 years old and booming, and with Madison growing as a technology hub supported by a younger workforce, Frautschi appears quite the visionary.
Madison was always regarded as a great place to attend college and then, later, to start a family, but that early-career gap has been filled by young professionals working at Epic Systems and elsewhere. Visible evidence includes the explosion of high-end apartments and the rapid redevelopment of the East Washington Avenue corridor.
And that has apparently helped Overture Center morph into being about the right size for Madison sooner than expected.
When I shared Frautschi’s prediction this week, DeDee responded: “Jerry was absolutely right. You don’t build a building for the activity that you have today. You always build it for the activity that you want to have tomorrow and into the future.”
When Overture opened, DeDee said there were six resident organizations such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra; now there are 10. There are about 480 performances per year and about 661,000 “patron experiences” — about 28 percent more than the season before DeDee arrived.
“Something I reported to Jerry and Pleasant over a year ago was that we have some spaces at Overture that are now at capacity,” DeDee said. “They were totally blown away by the fact.”
DeDee said some people see an empty lobby as they walk by Overture’s windows on Fairchild Street and get a mistaken impression. “The good news about the perception is that it’s just not the reality,” DeDee said.
“They don’t see what’s happening inside the theaters on all levels of the building, and believe me, the building is used. Since I’ve been here, we’ve doubled the number of activities going on in the building.”
Having announced his plan to retire, DeDee is starting to reflect on a successful run that began in 2012 amid uncertainty over ownership structure and financial viability. Just before he arrived, a private, nonprofit corporation — the Overture Center Foundation, Inc. — became the center’s sole proprietor, and that structure has worked.
The annual city taxpayer subsidy has fluctuated — the latest figure is $1.9 million — but that is only modestly higher than the city subsidy for the old Madison Civic Center, which Overture replaced.
DeDee said Overture will soon undertake a major fundraising campaign to create an endowment to support building updates and repairs. He declined to specify a financial goal. (A previous Overture endowment campaign — the Great Performances Fund for Theater — supports performances, not the structure.)
As he winds down, DeDee has been credited by many, including Mayor Paul Soglin, for navigating Overture’s complicated economics, expanding its successful Broadway series, advocating programs that reflect the diversity of the city and assuring that those of modest means have access to the arts.
His tenure marks another chapter in Madison’s history of entertainment at a downtown venue that opened in 1928 as the Capitol Theater, home to silent movies and later vaudeville acts. In the 1970s, Soglin, our past and present mayor, championed a rebuilt and expanded Civic Center, which opened in 1980, Then, in 2004, Overture replaced it.
As for DeDee, he said he doesn’t have specific retirement plans. “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing … I’ve been managing buildings like this my entire career, for 43 years.”
He is advising the board on the search for his successor, who DeDee says will need to balance financial imperatives with Overture’s mission of inclusion. For example, he said, how much should Overture expand its profitable Broadway series while balancing that against other goals?
Overall, DeDee said he is bullish because Madison’s downtown scene is becoming ever more vibrant.
“Growth will be indirectly affected by all of the start-ups, as well as the related development that’s taken place downtown, with buildings that have gone up in the last couple of years housing all of these young professionals coming into the marketplace,” DeDee said.
He asked rhetorically: “Where are the next audiences coming, and what are they going to be interested in? Do we have the right activities here in the building? How do we engage them in such a way that they want to come to activities here, participate, become ticket buyers, become season subscribers, become donors, and eventually become part of the long-term solution?”
To DeDee and others, the pace of Overture’s evolution — as well as the city’s — has been a happy surprise.
“Jerry and Pleasant probably didn’t see this whole new generation at the time they conceived Overture. It may not have existed, and quite frankly, I didn’t see the extent of it when I came here.”
In sum, Overture Center appears to have blossomed, reaching a sort of full flower while the couple who built it is here to enjoy it.
And in these past few years — when Overture’s success became far more assured — DeDee played a leading role.
So next spring, DeDee will exit the Overture stage to what will likely be richly deserved applause.
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