Kansas City Museum’s future is in flux amid turmoil with Union Station

The firing of the on-site director of the Kansas City Museum last week added drama to an effort already in the works to divorce the museum from Union Station.

The turmoil even spawned speculation that Union Station planned to close the museum. But Union Station CEO George Guastello, who met Friday with Mayor Sly James, the city manager and three council members, said that was not true.

The future of the museum, however, is very much in flux. At stake is management of the city-owned Corinthian Hall at 3218 Gladstone Blvd. and hundreds of thousands of pieces of Kansas City history.

The museum’s advisory board is considering a new business plan that rests on breaking the management contract with Union Station. A draft of the plan asserts that is necessary to pursue professional accreditation.

The latest draft was dated July 7 — the day before Guastello fired Christopher Leitch, who had been the station’s on-site director of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall since 2006.

Leitch was part of a six-member team that had guided the new business plan, along with city officials and members of the museum advisory board. Union Station will not discuss Leitch’s dismissal, saying it is a personnel matter.

Guastello said Friday that he had not been aware of the contents of the draft business plan. In an email to The Star, Leitch said his participation on the committee developing the plan was reported to Guastello before the work began. Leitch said he did not recall his Union Station boss raising any questions about it.

Guastello said the station intends to continue managing the Kansas City Museum and its collections as set out in a 2007 contract with the city. But if the city wants to propose changes, he said, Union Station would be happy to consider them.

Most of the museum’s collections, however, belong to Union Station.

“That’s not negotiable,” Guastello said.

Meanwhile, preparations continue toward a separation:

• The new business plan is “still alive and well,” said Martha Lally, chairwoman of the Museum Advisory Board.

• The advisory board is pursuing its own tax-exempt designation to raise private money for the museum.

• The City Council early this year instructed the city auditor to review Union Station’s compliance with the contract. The audit is not done yet.

City Councilman Scott Wagner, a longtime member of the advisory board, said the issue is what is best in the long term for the museum. He acknowledged that there are many details to be worked out.

The draft business plan says the museum’s credibility — and its ability to raise money — requires it to be professionally accredited.

“Unfortunately, while managed by Union Station, a mixed mission organization, the museum cannot recover institutional accreditation,” states the plan, which was commissioned by the advisory board and written by consultant Dodie Jacobi.

Katrina Henke, a longtime supporter of the Kansas City Museum and a Union Station board member, questioned the advisory board’s role.

“I think it’s been challenging having so many chefs in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s been confusing. They’re supposed to be an oversight to make sure tax dollars are used properly, (but) they seem to be wanting to manage, which is ironic because that’s what the contract with Union Station is to do.”

The Kansas City Museum collections contain documents, photographs, textiles and other materials. They also include a respected collection of Native American objects.

Since 1940, the museum has been housed at Corinthian Hall, the former home of Kansas City lumber businessman R.A. Long. The city decades ago accepted ownership of the 1910 building from the private Kansas City Museum Association, which continued to operate it.

In 2000, the museum association merged with Union Station to create Science City. The station now oversees approximately $1.4 million in annual property-tax revenue dedicated solely for the museum and its collections.

But relations between the city and Union Station over the museum have been contentious. The city created the museum advisory board, with members appointed by the mayor, to keep the City Council informed.

In 2006, tensions erupted in a legal battle over ownership of the collections and rights to the trademark “Kansas City Museum.” A compromise in 2007 led to a new, 20-year contract with Union Station to manage the mansion.

That compromise stipulated that Union Station owned the Native American objects in the collection as well as those of equestrian Loula Long Combs, while the city owned other items.

Also in 2007, Union Station lost the professional accreditation that the Kansas City Museum had enjoyed. The reason cited was the station’s financial instability. Union Station has since maximized its leasing revenues and cut expenses. It ended each of the last three years in the black while still tending to deferred maintenance projects.

Many museums get along without accreditation, but it is considered something to strive for.

In the Kansas City area, only the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Frontier Army Museum at Fort Leavenworth are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

In recent years, the city has invested more than $10 million in Corinthian Hall for a new roof and windows, masonry repair and climate control, among other things. Twice that much or more will be needed to realize a plan to restore the lower floor to period rooms and to prepare the upper levels for exhibits and education space.

The building has been largely closed to the public since 2008. There is no completion date, as that will depend on fundraising. Meanwhile, the collections — most of them in storage — are being curated by Union Station.

While the mansion has been undergoing repair, museum programming has shifted to activities on the grounds and off-site, special exhibitions and publications.

Lally credits Leitch with those initiatives and was saddened by his dismissal. She pointed to his work to build the museum’s collection of Kansas City’s Hispanic heritage and gay history and other projects she now fears are in jeopardy.

The new turmoil surrounding the Kansas City Museum has not gone unnoticed in the community. Longtime supporter and patron John Herbst said he may think twice before giving any more money as long as confusion remains over Leitch’s firing and the museum’s future.

“I deserve, and the people of this city deserve, an explanation,” Herbst said.