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Overture Project Panel Achieves Consensus

In August, Jerome Frautschi dropped his bombshell: He was donating $50 million through his Overture Foundation for the creation of a downtown arts district focused on the block around the Civic Center. Immediately, an advisory council began scrambling to come up with a master plan, and on Tuesday released its recommendations. The big surprise is that, rather than fighting over priorities, the arts community has reached a broad consensus.

The advisory council is a 48-member group of performing- and visual-arts professionals and others under the stewardship of Civic Center director Robert D'Angelo. To figure out how the community could best be served by the Frautschi windfall, the council divided into three groups: a visual subcommittee, a performing subcommittee and an at- large subcommittee that could participate in both of the other groups.

The report released on Tuesday establishes priorities among a broad range of potential projects suggested for the district. For the visual arts, seven items: renovate and expand the Madison Art Center; create a flexible community exhibit space; relocate/expand the Madison Children's Museum; provide additional logistical/technical support spaces; create a multi-technology, multi-purpose auditorium suitable for film/video/lectures; provide administrative offices for cultural groups; and create incubator space for emerging/developing groups.

For the performing arts, eight items: renovate the Civic Center's Oscar Mayer Theatre or create a new multi-purpose hall; provide rehearsal space for large music ensembles; provide rehearsal space for theater/dance/chamber music; create a midsize theater/music hall; renovate the Civic Center's Isthmus Playhouse; create a black-box performance space; provide production shops for sets and costumes; and provide office and administrative space.

There was strong agreement that whatever is done should be of top-rank quality and state-of-the-art. The advisory council's report also includes five additional visual arts projects and eight additional performing arts projects that didn't make it into the top tier.

The report also squarely confronts reality: "Even after this massive sorting-out process, the costs of the features that have risen to the top far exceed the funds currently available. Members of the council are aware that further choices will have to be made."

The process by which the advisory council developed the priorities was remarkably congenial. "We wanted an open process," D'Angelo says. "We reviewed about 50 written proposals and statements as well as about half that number of oral presentations. It was clear during the five working meetings each of the performing and visual subcommittees that people were committed to the result, reaching a high degree of consensus on needs for the wider community, whatever their own personal stakes might be."

One evidence of this cooperative spirit, D'Angelo notes, was that the top-priority items were supported by a large majority of the votes, while relatively less pressing needs garnered only a few votes. This excluded-middle result suggests that the participants were keeping the greater good in mind.

"There were a few surprises, actually," says Terry Haller, a board member of the Overture Project (which is distinct from the Overture Foundation). "There was very strong support for a community exhibit space, designed to serve many mediums, for use by local and regional artists and organizations." A similar "black-box" performance space for smaller events also came out above the consensus cutoff line.

Community attention will now shift to what happens next. The Overture Project's board must engage a team of planning, design, technical and engineering professionals to assist them in preparing preliminary space options, analyzing alternatives, evaluating relationships between existing and potentially new facilities, making preliminary site evaluations and testing alternatives against the $50 million budget. The result of this effort, due in May 1999, will be a report identifying a program for the Overture Project, including cost estimates and a project schedule.

It's clear in speaking to board chair George Austin that this is no small undertaking. "One of my great ongoing interests is urban development," Austin says, "and part of that involves timing issues and balancing various parts of the downtown structure."

Timing hinges on the degree to which interrelated elements can be expected to develop -- for example, downtown residential spaces, high-quality business spaces, entertainment and hospitality facilities, and, not least, cultural facilities.

"The Overture Project wants downtown Madison to be a cultural destination, both for the city and for the region," Austin says with evident enthusiasm. "The arts district can serve as a kind of cement holding the other elements together, as well as being a kind of magnet for an expanding audience that ultimately reaches well beyond the borders of the city and Dane County."

Isthmus, December, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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