The news out of 18th & Vine isn’t getting any better.
In recent days, we learned that the American Jazz Museum still owes at least $150,000 to vendors for its stellar but ill-fated May jazz festival. Some close to the situation are concerned that the amount owed may be far greater.
A mighty embarrassment is what this has turned out to be. And a shame, too, because our city needs to build on its worldwide reputation as an early cradle of jazz that nurtured the music into the acclaimed art form that it has become.
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But this year’s effort amounted to more than just a big bite of the proverbial apple. This was like trying to eat four apples at once. It was too much, too fast, and the fact that some jazz insiders understood that fact even before the festival began makes this news all the more difficult to swallow.
Board members have been asked to pitch in to cover the shortfall. The museum has increased its line of credit from $100,000 to $300,000. Museum officials have not said how much was borrowed, and they declined requests for an interview, although the museum’s executive director, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, issued a statement.
The museum, she said, “was too ambitious in forecasting our estimated ticket sales for the festival — and weekend storms further depressed our ticket and vendor sales.” She said the board has a “plan in place to eliminate the fiscal deficit from the festival” that includes “raising funds from sponsors as well as reducing expenses.”
The city has been forced to advance the museum $117,000 of its $500,000 annual appropriation to cover festival expenses. That’s money that the museum will need to make up as the year progresses, and that may well mean layoffs and operational cutbacks.
The City Council had no indication prior to the festival that it might be on the hook for $100,000 or more, even though the city has a history of seeding music festivals in their early years. Roger Naber, who once ran the Grand Emporium, recalls the city forking over $100,000 in upfront money to fund a jazz and blues festival in 1991.
The time has come to lay down some markers as the museum navigates this perilous moment. The museum, as it has apparently begun doing, must turn to private individuals to make up its operational shortfall. The city should have no further financial involvement. The museum and its board must repay the line of credit and do everything in their power to raise enough money to keep the museum and its adjoining club, the Blue Room, fully operational without devastating layoffs.
Next spring, the City Council should assess how well the board and Kositany-Buckner performed during these crucial months. If the financial crunch isn’t resolved, and if the museum’s operations deteriorate, then the council should promptly seek new leadership.
Future city-sponsored jazz festivals should be placed on hold until the current crisis is resolved.
That’s a reasonable path given the magnitude of this setback.
This episode highlights the need for clearer communication between Kositany-Buckner and her board, as well as museum officials and the City Council. That the museum was undertaking such a risky venture dependent on great weather should have raised flags at City Hall. That would have allowed city officials to fly-speck the festival more closely, including the weekend picked, the proposed budget and the gathering’s ambitious three-day schedule.
History suggests the museum can handle this. Pat O’Neill, who has been a key cog in the city’s annual Irish Fest, recalls the first time the Westport and Brookside Irish fests combined forces in 2003. That year, the festival enjoyed a solid first night, only to see rain wash out the rest of the weekend. The festival lost $100,000. But organizers went to work, conducting fundraisers and staging bake sales to close the gap. They made up the money, and the festival kept rolling.
That should be an example for the jazz crowd.