In an attempt to fix recurring and long-lasting difficulties, the Skylight Music Theatre is examining the possible sale of its Broadway Theatre Center, one of the buildings that served as a catalyst for the development of the Historic Third Ward.
The discussions come just two months after the resignation of Viswa Subbaraman, the Skylight's vibrant artistic director who created a company vision of mixing surefire productions with some risky and artistically challenging shows.
The actions by the board are a continuation of the financial and artistic turmoil that has bedeviled Skylight for almost a decade.
In a statement to be released to Skylight staff, Board President Alec Fraser said that the board is examining the wisdom of continuing to own the building at 158 N. Broadway.
"Skylight Music Theatre has produced the full spectrum of music theater at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center for the past 23 seasons, and remains committed to performing at the Cabot Theatre for many, many years into the future," the statement said.
"At the same time, Skylight is committed to strengthening our financial position while maintaining our high professional standards of producing and presenting music theater. To that end, we continuously evaluate all areas of our business to ensure financial stability.
"One of many areas that the Skylight Music Theatre Board of Directors has been examining is Skylight's role as owner/landlord of the Broadway Theatre Center and whether a different ownership structure (for example, a sale and leaseback) might serve us better for the long term. The Board of Directors continues to evaluate alternatives for the Broadway Theatre Center and no final decision has been made on the future ownership of the facility. "
There have already been inquiries from potentially interested buyers of the facility.
Several board members, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak for the organization, said that there was a sense of exhaustion over the almost constant battle to restore the company to a stable financial footing.
"Skylight doesn’t have a clear mission and doesn’t operate in today’s world," said one board member. "There is enormous frustration and some board members blame Viswa for his programming. But the problems existed well before he got here."
Subbaraman was a risk-taker who produced relatively unknown pieces that rankled some of the longtime Skylight supporters.
"Perhaps the biggest problem we have is the incredible dependence we have on ticket sales," said another board member. "If we don’t sell enough tickets, it has an overwhelming impact on our financial picture."
According to its 2015 tax return, 36 percent of Skylight’s revenue came from ticket sales. By comparison, revenue from tickets sales for the Florentine Opera, which has a similar sized budget, was just 14 percent.
"Take a look at the Florentine," one board member said. "They moved four or five years ago from an expensive Downtown address to Riverwest, of all places. They combined the top positions, artistic and general directors, into one position. That’s the kind of model that you need today."
There have been rumors among some of the tenants of the building that there is sentiment on the board to just sell the building and shut down the company, but those are likely unfounded.
The center was built in 1993 by converting a former warehouse for the O.R. Pieper Company, a wholesale grocer, into office, rehearsal and fabrication space and the building of the Cabot Theatre, adjacent to the south. The building housed a gay dance club called The Factory for a few years in the late 70;s.The Cabot, built to resemble a European opera house, has a capacity of 358 seats and a bar, restaurant and reception area on the second floor.
One board member said that raising money from sources other than the United Performing Arts Fund was a critical area that needed to show improvement.
"Look at the companies, like Florentine, that go out and raise money," a board member said. "We went a year or so without a development director. Then we hired a few people who didn’t work out. It’s part of being managed well. The Florentine is well-managed and is flourishing."
Total contributions outside of ticket revenue for the Skylight last year were $779,000, while the Florentine raised $1.9 million in the community.
Fraser is a lawyer at Michael Best & Friedrich and has a lengthy and successful history of involvement in the Milwaukee arts community. He seems determined to right this ship, but not with quick fixes. He says that he wants to create a business model that will ensure that Skylight continues to provide high-quality musical theater for decades.
In the summer of 2009, Skylight exploded following several firings by the recently hired managing director Eric Dillner. The theater community in Milwaukee responded with outrage, staging demonstrations outside the theater and mounting an aggressive social media campaign.
By mid-summer, a number of contracted artists broke their agreements to participate in Skylight productions and the dispute was a frequent subject of local news coverage. Finally, Thomas Hefty, the heavy-handed president of the board, resigned, followed quickly by Dillner.
The board hired its former chief financial officer Amy Jensen, who stabilized things and engineered a revival of the company that included hiring Subbaraman. Jensen resigned two years ago and was replaced by Jack Lemmon.
At issue with the ownership of the building is whether or not Skylight wants to be in the building management business. The building adjacent to the Cabot houses rehearsal space and offices for several performing arts groups, including Bel Canto Chorus, Renaissance Theaterworks and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Operation of that building is a continual drain on Skylight, and it has a severe impact on the financial picture.
It’s likely that the end result of all of this will be the sale of both buildings and a long-term agreement on a lease and date preference for Skylight.
When Herb Kohl sold the Milwaukee Bucks, he included a provision that the team remain in Milwaukee. Any sale of the center may well be modeled after that agreement.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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