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Big money brings new questions.

Suddenly the unmistakable sound of something hitting a fan

Can you insist a donor listen to the public?

Of course, Madison would look a gift horse in not just the mouth, but the eye, nose, ear, space just behind the ear ... etc. This is a city that takes change very seriously and often not well. This is a city that spent 50 years debating the merits of a Frank Lloyd Wright convention center, may well spend 50 years debating the merits of building a public swimming pool, and is currently debating the merits of a $100 million gift to create an arts district downtown.

Jerry Frautschi is the donor, a native Madisonian quite familiar with the Madisonian resistance to change but still somewhat chagrined that people have "told me how I should be spending my $100 million."

What he decided to spend it on was a facility that would anchor a cultural arts district in downtown Madison -- initially giving $50 million, then, about a year later, in excited recognition of the design possibilities, donating a second $50 million.

Consultants recommended a new concert hail, a renovated theater, an expanded arts center, and new performance spaces. Urban enthusiasts envisioned new galleries, shops, nightlife, and housing.

And suddenly there is the unmistakable sound of something hitting a fan:

"This proposal is irresponsible, unaccountable, shortsighted pandering to the hoity-toity that will bankrupt the city, ignore the true needs of artists, ruin the ambiance of one of Madison's gems, run roughshod over history and tradition, and make it harder yet to find a parking place."

All right, the quotation is a compilation. But I've heard every word in one description or another. Yet beneath each, you find legitimate concerns about access, governance, public policy, and artistic merit. You'll also find anger, resentment, and fear: fear of growth, fear of diversity, fear of the unknown -- fear of change.

All in all, a heck of away to say thanks for the single largest gift of its kind in the collective memory of folks around Madison. But also quite an editorial challenge.

We're pretty comfortable passing judgment on plans proposed either individually or collectively by governments, businesses, or nonprofit organizations. But dealing with an act of philanthropy of this magnitude is a less-frequent topic of discussion, at least for my editorial board.

In a nutshell, we embrace the concept, applaud the motivation, and support the proposal. Frautschi is sincere, the arts are deserving, and a cultural affairs district is a good fit with Madison's master plan.

But we do have an editorial history of recognizing the importance of voices less frequently heard, often insisting government listen to them. Can we insist a private philanthropist do the same? We do not readily accept the claim that a rising tide lifts all boats. Still, when we question commitment to equal opportunity, it usually involves people accountable to the voters.

Can we gleefully accept a private $100 million gift, then attach moral strings? And a 30-year ownership and operation contract might make good sense today, less sense if said housing, nightlife, and ambiance fail to materialize, or materializes in ways less attractive than originally envisioned.

Normally Madison would be expected to experience national trends on a smaller scale. Here the "smaller" is in number of projects but certainly not in scope. We've got a huge philanthropist with the wherewithal and vision to literally transform the landscape. And it has forced us to question our community and ourselves a little differently. And that alone is pretty persuasive evidence of the power of the new, big money affecting our lives.

NCEW board member Neil Heinen is editorial director for WISC-TV in Madison, Wisc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Article Details
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Author:HEINEN, NEIL
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:611
Previous Article:You have to try to do what's right.
Next Article:Holding the gift horse accountable.
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