Julia Irene Kauffman gives a $20 million boost for UMKC arts campus

A proposal to move the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance downtown, along with its more than 700 students and staff, received its critical first gift Wednesday — a $20 million challenge grant from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation.

Julia Irene Kauffman, the chairwoman and chief executive of the foundation bearing her mother’s name, announced the gift Wednesday on the stage of the opera hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The glittering balconies of the hall, also named for her mother, were the backdrop to an event that drew more than 150 people.

“The conservatory is a vibrant community resource and we believe the Downtown Arts Campus project has the potential to bring excitement and broad revitalized economic development to downtown, to the Kauffman Center and to other arts groups located downtown,” Kauffman said.

The quest to move the facility from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Volker Campus, first reported by The Star two years ago, is intended to raise both the profile of the 107-year-old conservatory and the Kauffman Center, which opened in September 2011.

It also would be a big boost to downtown, specifically the Crossroads Arts District, because it would bring hundreds of students to enliven the area and potentially spur other redevelopment.

The Kauffman grant was described as the second-largest ever received by UMKC, but much work remains. The cost to move the conservatory is estimated at $90 million. Two years ago, the state approved legislation intended to match private dollars, leaving a $20 million to $25 million goal for fund raisers.

Some of those potential donors were at the event, including representatives from major companies such as Sprint and Burns McDonnell, and philanthropic families including the Helzbergs, Copakens and Dunns. In addition, the proposal has the full backing of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which has named it one of its “Big 5” ideas for Kansas City.

But it was Kauffman’s day Wednesday.

Her reputation as a philanthropist is based on the $105 million that she and her foundation donated to the Performing Arts Center. Her lead in supporting the conservatory proposal is expected to encourage other major donors to do the same.

“Your dedication to this city is not only remarkable, it’s impactful,” Mayor Sly James said at the event. “These are the type of things that truly make a city magnificent and great.”

The audience gave her a standing ovation, and Robert Weirich, a professor who once taught piano to Kauffman at the conservatory, performed Piano Sonata No. 52 by Haydn. Jazz great Bobby Watson also serenaded her with the tune “There Will Never Be Another You.”

“We are proud to be a catalyst for progress to help drive the conservatory to new heights with a new, cutting-edge facility,” Kauffman said. “This project will bring great synergy among existing arts organizations and initiatives.”

The strategic goal of the proposal to bring the conservatory downtown is to forge the kind of creative bond between music instruction and performance that has occurred in New York with the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center, and in Boston between the New England Conservatory and Symphony Hall.

Two possible locations have been identified, both bordering the Kauffman Center. One site is east of the center and covers two blocks roughly from Wyandotte to Main and from 16th to 17th streets. Kauffman controls more than half that site, which is currently a vacant, landscaped property.

The other location includes sections of the blocks at the northwest and southeast corners of 17th Street and Broadway. It also has room to the south for expansion on land owned by DST Realty and currently used as a community garden.

Kauffman said she had no preference for the location, and UMKC officials also remain open to both. An early proposal to put the conservatory on Barney Allis Plaza in the heart of the central business district was discarded last year.

“I think it will breathe more life into our buildings,” Kauffman said. “Sitting in the great halls and listening is a great lesson for students. They’ll be able to get closer to the great artists who visit.”

Kauffman described the $20 million grant as a challenge to the community. The grant has a three-year time limit for the rest of the funding to be obtained.

W. Russell Welsh, chairman of the Kansas City chamber and chief executive at the Polsinelli law firm, said his organization “gladly accepts this challenge.”

“Arts are part of the fabric of the community and makes the city great,” he said. “Having it in the center is critical to making it a greater Kansas City and urban core.”

Two years ago, the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill to establish a fund to cover 50 percent of universities’ capital construction project costs if the money was matched by private donations. The legislature, however, has not yet allocated the funding for that plan.

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton said Kauffman’s donation should signal to other philanthropists in the region that the UMKC Conservatory proposal was worthy of their support.

“She’s giving us the spark we need to make this happen and have the kind of impact in our region’s future that we know this project can have,” Morton said. “I’m comfortable there are people out there, both public and private, who’ll support it.”

The UMKC official said other donors were contemplating gifts, although none of the magnitude being offered by Kauffman.

“This gives us momentum and we don’t want to waste it,” Morton said. “We’ve already had conversations, we have made requests and we have individual considering those requests.”

James also added his support to the project and predicted that a planned downtown streetcar line ultimately would extend to UMKC so students could use it for commuting between the campuses.

Later, the mayor said the city had not received a request to help the project. But, he added, “The city will do whatever it can reasonably do to make this a reality.”

Kauffman said her family had a long history of supporting the UMKC Conservatory, noting that her mother started a program in which teachers received cash prizes.

“Muriel would give teachers cash grants and deliver them herself,” she said. “She’d come home and tell me when I was a young girl about how excited they were.”

Julia Kauffman studied piano at the conservatory in the mid-1960s and returned a few years ago for more instruction. The school awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2012.

Peter Witte, dean of the conservatory, said Kauffman’s vital pledge gave him confidence the project would come to fruition, noting she was the driving force behind the Performing Arts Center. She has been assisted by Dave Lady, president of the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation.

The conservatory offers programs in dance; instrumental, jazz, keyboard and vocal studies; composition; music theory and musicology; and music education/music therapy.

Back on the UMKC Volker Campus, the halls of the conservatory were quiet in the summer session — as quiet as a building full of drums, pianos and horns can get. Those who heard news of the gift were excited by the possibility of a downtown conservatory.

Ben Gulley, an opera singer who graduated from UMKC in 2011, said a downtown move would add performing arts to a burgeoning visual arts district and give students “a true urban experience.”

Stan Kessler, a trumpeter and adjunct instructor at the university, said students tended to be isolated on campus. A downtown immersion would do them good.

“Having class where stuff is happening all the time — it just stimulates the imagination and inspires them,” he said. “Like a New York scene kind of thing.”

The Star’s Ben Unglesbee contributed to this story.

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