Lifeline for troubled jazz museum? Close it for up to year and reorganize, report says

The American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine.
The American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine.

Kansas City officials should consider closing the financially troubled American Jazz Museum, possibly for as long as a year, to reorganize under new leadership, according to a consultant’s report released Monday.

“AJM needs a complete rebirth, starting with its leadership, but continuing with a revamped financial model, visitor experience and operational infrastructure,” said the report from Museum Management Consultants, a San Francisco-based firm hired by the city late last year to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment.

The report paints a bleak picture of the museum in the 18th & Vine District. The museum opened in 1997 and is operated by a non-profit in partnership with the city. Consultants cite stale exhibit offerings, poor financial management and low staff morale. The review is sharply critical of the museum executive director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner and senior staff, holding them responsible for “numerous missteps, questionable decisions and a lack of transparency.”

Among its more than two-dozen recommendations, the report advised the city to “refresh staff and board leadership.”

Kositany-Buckner, who was hired in early 2016 after a national search, could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

City Councilman Jermaine Reed, a member of the museum’s board of directors, said in a statement that the report provides the basis for the city to “move forward to make decisions on how to best align AJM with museum industry standards, create greater accountability and oversight, and enhance the museum’s long-term sustainability.”

In a letter Monday to Mayor Sly James and the City Council, City Manager Troy Schulte said he “would never consider closing the museum in its entirety.” But Schulte did leave open the possibility of keeping it open on a limited basis while a reorganization goes forward.

He asked council members for their appraisal of the report and said he hopes to include many of the recommendations in a new management contract with the museum that begins May 1.

The report, based on a review of documents and 40 confidential interviews with museum stakeholders, said leadership was responsible for a series of financial missteps. The museum was on a fairly stable financial footing until 2016, with annual expenses of about $2 million. But it entered into a “pattern of overspending” on Kositany-Buckner’s watch.

Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, director of the American Jazz Museum, talks about the finances and logistics issues that occurred during the first jazz festival. This video was originally published July 6, 2017.

That led to losses of more than $1 million over the last year, most notably a $447,000 deficit from its first-ever jazz festival in 2017 — losses the city covered. The festival turned into a major public-relations black eye after reports that checks to musicians bounced and that the museum spent $18,000 on a chartered plane to bring a performer to town on time.

Consultants said that the museum also suffered from poor marketing, and heard from stakeholders that the city has failed to promote it “as an essential element of Kansas City tourism.”

The report mentioned serious concern from AJM stakeholders about perception of AJM as black institution.

At the same time, the report noted, a close association with the black community has not hurt the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is co-located with AJM and is considered “a vibrant and healthy organization.”

Consultants also said AJM’s 23-member board of directors is bloated and ineffective at fundraising. They recommended that the board “be pared down to a small, core group of passionate and impactful individuals (approximately 8-10 people), including civic leaders, museum professionals, and philanthropic leaders, who will fully commit to guiding the Museum through an in-depth planning process.”

Here's a brief look at the important names in the history of Kansas City jazz.