After years of pushing for downtown conservatory, UMKC eyes another option: On campus

"We have outgrown our conservatory facility and it is outdated," said UMKC Provost and Interim Chancellor Barbara Bichelmeyer.
"We have outgrown our conservatory facility and it is outdated," said UMKC Provost and Interim Chancellor Barbara Bichelmeyer. UMKC

The University of Missouri-Kansas City is still hoping for a new home for its Conservatory of Music and Dance, but under a new plan unveiled Thursday, that could mean a new building on campus. Or downtown. Or a renovation of an existing building around town.

This plan also includes a proposal to merge the nationally recognized Conservatory and the UMKC theater department.

"We have been told by experts that we have outgrown our conservatory facility and it is outdated," UMKC Provost and Interim Chancellor Barbara Bichelmeyer said Thursday. "We simply need to have a facility that matches the quality of our faculty and our students."

Originally, UMKC had unveiled a plan for a downtown conservatory, but it is no longer viable because it was not designed with combined music and theater programs in mind. Merging the two programs, she said, "we had to rethink our space needs, our facility needs, our land needs."

She said the university could not estimate costs for a facility that would satisfy the merger plan until after gauging interest from developers and philanthropists and hearing from the community, starting later this month.

UMKC intends "to identify opportunities for off-campus land and existing buildings" and pursue public-private partnerships, officials said in a statement.

The announcement comes two months after Missouri state Rep. Noel Shull, a Republican from Kansas City, reintroduced a bill that would fund half the cost of building and furnishing a downtown conservatory near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

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This was an early rendition of a proposed downtown UMKC Conservatory. File

Last year Republican Gov. Eric Greitens vetoed the plan that had legislative and community support to build a $96 million arts campus/conservatory downtown using $48 million in state-issued bonds in a 50-50 match. UMKC had already raised its $48 million share.

After the veto, the lead donor, the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, withdrew its $20 million pledge.

At the time, university officials said they would continue finding ways to pay for a new conservatory "by making tough budget decisions and using private funds along with strong leaders in the Kansas City community."

"Given the dire condition of the Conservatory's current facilities and the current lack of state funding due to the ill-considered veto of a downtown arts campus, we can certainly understand the University's desire to consider the option of an on-campus facility," Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said in an email to The Star.

"Insuring the longtime viability and growth of this world-class asset is too important. Saying that, we still hope that a downtown arts campus will become a reality. The synergy between a downtown campus, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and Kansas City's vibrant arts community represents a great opportunity for both the students and the city."

A new downtown conservatory was first suggested in 2011 as one of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's Big Five initiatives.

"There are strong opinions and passionate support in the Kansas City community and beyond about whether the Conservatory should be located downtown or on campus. The ... process will help us determine where the new facility should be located,” Bichelmeyer said

"If we find strong academic reasons and the resources to cover the majority cost for building and operating a downtown campus, that may be our best solution. If there is an existing building in a viable location that can be re-purposed at a much lower cost than new construction, then that may be our most viable option. Otherwise, academic interests and resources warrant that we will locate the facility on campus."

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Ricardo Khan's "Freedom Summer" is now playing at UMKC's Spencer Theater. The university is proposing to merge the Theatre Department with the Conservatory of Music and Dance. UMKC

In the meantime the merger proposal would move the Department of Theatre from UMKC's College of Arts and Sciences — where it is housed alongside such programs as criminology, chemistry, and architecture — to one focused solely on the performing arts.

Faculty say they fully support the plan.

"We have been sharing buildings with the conservatory since 1979," said Tom Mardikes, UMKC professor of sound design. He said the two programs have also shared resources such as sound design, set construction and even faculty collaboration for years.

"We do all kinds of stuff together. This is a good fit."

Officials also said they expect the plan would open up opportunities for performance, composition and research at UMKC, designated as Missouri’s Campus for the Visual and Performing Arts by the University of Missouri System.

Bichelmeyer also said that merging the programs would make them more efficient because they would share several costs.

With Thursday's announcement also came the news that Bichelmeyer has appointed Conservatory dean Diane Helfers Petrella to oversee the combined departments.

Carla Noack, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre, said that with the merger, "we will become exponentially more attractive to the world-class students we recruit, because it reaffirms our commitment to leadership in the performing arts."