LEAH BELLACK/Herald photo

The Madison Cultural Arts District Board approved a smaller budget for the Overture Center Thursday that cuts 15 full-time staff positions and some programs and scales back administrative costs.

The Overture’s announcement comes on the heels of last week’s decision by the Madison Repertory Theater, a resident organization of the Overture, to lay off several of its employees.

The Overture’s layoffs will take effect Jan. 16, 2009, and employees who will be losing their jobs were notified Thursday after the MCADB meeting. Four of the 15 positions that are being cut are currently vacant, according to Overture Center spokesperson Rob Chappell.

“The bottom line is the economy as a whole,” Chappell said. “We live in the same economy as GM and American Girl, which are all unfortunately cutting staff.”

Although the Overture’s budget decisions do not affect resident organizations directly, the theater cited economic difficulties due to lagging ticket sales and cuts in corporate contributions, both of which are symptoms of overall economic difficulties, according to Philip Bradbury, Madison Repertory Theatre board member.

Chappell said the recent liquidation of the Overture’s trust fund is not the cause of the layoffs, but the $1.4 million the fund annually earned made up more than 10 percent of the Overture’s budget, and that loss of revenue comes at an especially difficult time.

Administrative and program costs were cut by 22 percent, leaving the Overture with an operating budget of $5.6 million from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2009.

The Madison Cultural Arts District Board, which oversees issues at the Overture and related organizations in the city, first examined program costs and other layoff alternatives to cut expenses, but they were not enough. Because the Overture must stay under budget by law, the decision was made to cut employees, board member William Keys said.

In addition to the Overture Center and Madison Repertory Theatre layoffs, the musicians in the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra are still striking while they negotiate a more favorable contract, Keys said.

“People don’t strike unless they’re at the end of their rope,” Keys said in reference to the WCO strikes. “Striking is very difficult, and people don’t do it unless they see themselves as having a legitimate complaint.”

According to Chappell, Overture Center leaders recently met with stakeholders, including board members, current and former civic leaders, resident organizations and concerned citizens, to discuss additional changes regarding the governance, organizational and financial structures of the Overture Center.

Overture Center CEO Tom Carto said the first of these fundamental changes is already taking place. The administration is changing from a calendar year-based budget to a fiscal year-based budget based on performance seasons that will allow for more accurate budgeting.

“We did our best to cut back on programs, not cut them out,” Carto said. “There are many economies that can be produced without complete cuts, such as starting programs later and ending them earlier, as well as reducing the number of performances.”

Program changes include canceling the Children’s Art Festival and the May 7 performance of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as well as reductions in the number of OnStage, Kids in the Rotunda, Duck Soup Cinema and Overture After Work performances.

According to Carto, these program changes are temporary solutions to the crisis and every effort will be made to restore undesirable cuts as funding becomes more stable.

In spite of current financial woes, Carto said he was confident the quality of productions would not suffer from the leaner budget and the temporary cuts would pave the way for more sustainable funding sources.

“We’re probably in the perfect storm right now, with budget cuts and a difficult economy, but we’ll be coming out,” Carto said. “Although it’s been a bit painful, the budgets have been balanced, and there will be more changes ahead. The Overture will be leaner and meaner and will continue to provide the community with the quality they expect.”