Kansas City’s beleaguered American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine has reached a tipping point. It must either improve its financial performance or risk closure.
Thursday, Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed said the museum lost $445,000 on a festival this May, and ended the budget year $192,000 in the red in its operating fund. Others say the losses may be even higher.
No one denies the red ink is growing. Thursday afternoon, Reed introduced an ordinance allocating another $225,000 to the museum, just to meet its payroll.
Reed and his colleagues know such subsidies are increasingly hard to defend. Kansas City taxpayers already provided $500,000 for the museum’s operations and maintenance this year.
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The museum’s ongoing financial difficulties led Reed to write the museum’s board of directors Monday, suggesting a takeover of the facility’s management by the city’s Parks Department. He suggested that change formally Thursday afternoon.
“It is clear business as usual will not suffice,” Reed told the board. His proposal includes city control of the American Jazz Museum, the Gem Theater and the Blue Room, a performance venue.
Reed’s idea has considerable merit. The city already owns the museum building and its exhibits. It has similar arrangements with other cultural institutions, including the Kansas City Museum.
But a city takeover makes sense on its own terms. Kansas City can’t be expected to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the museum every year without greater control over how the money is spent.
Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the museum’s current director, deserves some of the blame for the immediate problems. As The Star first reported, her overly-ambitious jazz festival in May was a major disappointment, leading to budget shortfalls and bounced checks.
But Kositany-Buckner is just the latest in a long line of museum officials who have struggled with finances at the facility. The American Jazz Museum was conceived as a self-sustaining institution when the city built the complex in the 1990s; in truth, it has always needed a public subsidy.
That’s actually okay. Most museums need taxpayer help, and the 18th & Vine District is a cornerstone of the long-running effort to improve the city’s East Side.
Kansas City should not abandon the jazz museum. It should be a major attraction and asset for the entire community. But the city must insist on more careful oversight and close attention to the bottom line.
Museum officials need professional guidance. They need advisers with experience in performance venues and festivals. They need a solid business plan, experienced fundraisers, better marketing. A firm budget for acquisitions and rotating exhibits would help.
City control may be the best way to achieve these goals. The Parks Department has something to prove, too. Before it gets the keys, the department should demonstrate a commitment to the museum’s unique place in Kansas City’s story.
There is still time to save the American Jazz Museum, but it is running out.