Government & Politics

American Jazz Museum officials working to repay KC government for festival bailout

Jazz Museum leader discusses finance issues at the American Jazz Festival

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.
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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.

American Jazz Museum representatives say they are working to repay the Kansas City government for $117,000 that was advanced to them to help cover costs for the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival in May.

“It’s our commitment to raising that $117,000 and paying that back,” museum board chair Anita Maltbia said Thursday, regarding reimbursement to the city.

Meanwhile, city officials say they want assurances that bounced checks and other problems will never happen again.

The Kansas City Star reported in an editorial last week that about 10 performers at the jazz festival, which was held May 26-28, had received checks that bounced. It was a sad reflection on an event that promoters had intended to be a festival of national prominence. It also resulted in the city advancing the jazz museum $117,000 to help cover those costs, which some City Council members said took them by surprise.

This week, Earnest Rouse, director of Kansas City’s General Services Department, provided additional information about that advanced payment. Rouse said the City Council was not alerted to the payment because it came from a $500,000 annual appropriation to the jazz museum that the council had already approved as part of the city budget.

But Rouse added that the $500,000 is supposed to be for museum administration and operations, and museum supporters were expected to have raised the money for the festival from other sources.

Rouse said he had just been made aware of the bounced check problem, and since the museum in the 18th and Vine Jazz District is a city-owned asset, it was in the city’s best interest to help rectify that problem.

“We believe that if they perform, they should be paid,” Rouse said of the musicians. “And if there were challenges in meeting that expectation or obligation, then quite frankly I don’t see anything wrong with the city to have tried to make it right.”

Rouse also said he would be meeting soon with museum management to adress “how we avoid these situations going forward.”

The $500,000 museum appropriation was in the budget that started May 1, and it’s paid to the museum on a reimbursable basis. It was expected that the city would make regular payments of about $42,000 per month. So that $117,000 is more than would normally have gone to the museum by this time, and was provided earlier than scheduled, city officials acknowledged.

City Councilman Scott Wagner, chair of the council’s finance committee, said this week he was concerned it could leave the museum short of administrative funding later in the year.

“You have a $117,000 hole in your operations that you’ve got to make up,” Wagner said.

Wagner said he wanted museum officials to answer questions about the festival’s problems, and they’ve agreed to attend the finance committee hearing July 19.

“This is not good event management,” Wagner said. “Typically the events run on their own.”

Maltbia, a longtime museum supporter and board chair for 14 months, said the $500,000 from the city is only a portion of the museum’s revenues, and is several hundred thousand dollars less than the museum received from the city in its early years. She emphasized this is the only time the museum has ever bounced checks to musicians.

“In 20 years of existence, this is the first and only time that all musicians have not been paid on time,” Maltbia said, adding that out of 75 musicians in this year’s festival, 10 were not paid on time. She said they have all now been paid. For those affected, it was a matter of when they performed that contributed to their issues, and she apologized.

“We are greatly and heartily sorry this occurred for our musicians,” Maltbia said. “If it happens to anybody, we still take it to heart.”

She said the museum staff and board are studying what went wrong, to make sure it is never repeated.

“We know we fell short, and you can bet there are a lot of diagnostics going on,” she said.

This year’s festival was more ambitious than in the past, expanding from one day to three as a way to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary, while also giving the museum a higher profile. It also was moved from the fall to Memorial Day weekend.

But strong storms put a damper on attendance, which museum executive director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner said in an interview was the biggest problem. She had hoped ticket sales would exceed 7,000, but only 4,500 were sold, so that led to a revenue shortfall.

Many attendees said it was a terrific weekend of music with outstanding performances, but it wasn’t the breakthrough crowd many had hoped for. As for the bounced checks to musicians, Kositany-Buckner said, “It was just an unfortunate incident.”

In a Beer Hour Facebook conversation with The Star on Thursday afternoon, Kositany-Buckner described the festival as “a great event, an overall success in many ways,” despite “a few hiccups.”

She noted that it takes time to build a world-class festival and said Kansas City will learn from this year’s experience to ensure an even better event in coming years.

Kositany-Buckner said in an interview that the museum is working hard to increase all its revenue sources, not just to pay back the $117,000 but to bolster the museum for the future.

It’s important for Kansas City, one of the four pillars of jazz, to host a world-class jazz festival, Kositany-Buckner said, and the museum hopes to hold a festival again next year. But that will require more feedback from musicians, help from an advisory committee that will be formed, more fundraising, a strategic plan and support from the entire community.

“What we are trying to do now is get to the bottom of everything that happened and come up with a game plan for going forward,” Kositany-Buckner said.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley