The Overture Center is located at 201 State St.

Overture Center’s choice for a new leader could make or break the posh arts center as it moves to private, nonprofit ownership and tries to step from a financial abyss, arts experts said.

The Overture Center Foundation, which assumes control of operations Jan. 1, 2012, must hire a top-notch executive capable of raising large sums of money, talking with the public and delivering dynamic programming, they said — all while being frank about the art center’s stormy financial history and the new mayor’s skepticism of it.

“Overture will surely face some difficulties in attracting candidates in the next CEO search,” said Mary Berryman Agard, an arts consultant helping develop a cultural plan for the city. “It’s a hard, hard job that demands a person of top-level capabilities. I would consider it a life or death choice for this institution.”

Despite the challenges, however, arts leaders will be tempted to take the top spot at Overture, a $205 million gem designed by renowned architect Cesar Pelli that’s been a magnet for audiences in a community known for its quality of life, and the challenge of making it a success, Agard and others said.

The foundation on Tuesday voted unanimously to initiate a national search to replace current Overture President Tom Carto to seek the job. Carto, encouraged by the foundation to apply, hasn’t decided whether to do so.

Overture was built with a jaw-dropping $205 million gift by philanthropist W. Jerome Frautschi. Its short history has been the sort of drama that could be offered on one of its stages.

The narrative has unfolded before the eyes of arts leaders across the nation who make up the pool of candidates to lead the institution.

“It’s a fairly tight community at that level of leadership,” said Andrew Taylor, director of UW-Madison’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration. “Everybody’s watching because it’s such an interesting story.”

Fully opened in 2005, Overture has largely been a box office success. But Overture has had a clumsy governance structure and epic financial struggles.

In December, the City Council approved a deal with Overture officials that allowed Overture and donors to erase a $28.6 million bank debt that threatened to close its doors.

Under the deal, the foundation will take over operations from the Madison Cultural Arts District. To succeed it must double fundraising to $2.5 million annually, broaden the center’s geographic reach and pursue new revenue streams. The city’s contribution will rise to $2 million annually.

Foundation Chairwoman Deirdre Garton and MCAD Chairwoman Linda Baldwin declined comment.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, a member of both boards, said the foundation wants a leader with strong fundraising skills. He acknowledged that uncertainties about Overture’s finances make recruitment more difficult.

Still, observers expect a deeper pool of candidates than when then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz chose Carto in 2006.

At that time, potential candidates were wary of the governance structure and may have shied away because then-interim Overture President Michael Goldberg, a favorite in the arts community, wanted the position, Verveer and Taylor said.

Cieslewicz said he chose Carto because of chemistry and belief he would be a strong fundraiser, even though Carto came from a smaller arts organization in Mansfield, Ohio.

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Carto got good marks for programming and management, but wasn’t a dynamic fundraiser or community presence, partly because Overture was in a near-constant financial crisis, observers said.

“Tom never had the chance,” Taylor said.

Carto made $160,197 in 2010, including $36,000 from the foundation.

The foundation hasn’t released a job description, but in a word, they’re looking for a “star” who doesn’t always need the spotlight, experts said.

The executive must be a magnet for resources, a financial steward and a team leader, Taylor said.

“If you’re interested in sitting at your desk a lot, this isn’t the job for you,” he said.

Agard added, “You want someone who’s very charismatic, who’s a very solid ambassador for the institution and able to build strong partnerships. The challenge for Overture is to determine what their case is. Salary alone is not going to draw the right person.”

There’s no masking the central challenge: that Overture is simply too big for Madison, Agard said. Madison’s philanthropic base would typically support a performing arts center with a budget of $5 million, not Overture’s $12 million or more.

Moreover, Mayor Paul Soglin raised eyebrows this week, saying the new structure is destined to “crash and burn.”

Taylor said Soglin’s comments will be a “huge flag” in recruiting a new CEO and encouraged the mayor to support the transition to private ownership.

The mayor said in an interview he won’t try to stop the transition because it would leave no operational structure, but will seek a study on the potential for long-term private giving, the building and the city’s artistic needs and audiences.

The study, which will cost between $125,000 and $150,000, can be completed in six to nine months, he said.

“I don’t know how anyone can implement what is purported to be a permanent plan without such an analysis,” he said.

Agard isn’t concerned about Soglin’s comments, calling them a “wake-up call to the seriousness of the challenge.”

“You don’t want a candidate who doesn’t know that,” she said. “Anyone who can pull this off can write their ticket for the rest of their career.”

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