American Jazz Museum in crisis: New leadership, more funds and a long-term plan are needed

The American Jazz Museum is still in need of a permanent director.
The American Jazz Museum is still in need of a permanent director. File photo

The Kansas City Council will take another crack Wednesday at finding a solution to the ongoing financial crisis at the American Jazz Museum.

Two competing resolutions are on the table. One, from Councilman Jermaine Reed, would extend city funding for the museum for an additional two months. The money would provide “adequate time” for the museum’s staff to develop a plan for rescuing the facility.

Councilman Scott Wagner has another idea. He wants to limit any additional support for the museum until a recommendation to “refresh” the facility’s leadership is addressed.

That likely means resignations from the museum’s staff. “I can’t have this city bail out bad decision making when the decision makers don’t even recognize that change must come,” Wagner said on Facebook.

Wagner’s frustration is understandable. City taxpayers may shell out $1.4 million for the museum this fiscal year, a subsidy that is unsustainable.

Yet yanking all support for the jazz museum immediately would be counterproductive, as would cleaning out the museum’s staff in one fell swoop.

The city could fire the museum’s director, staff and board, and the facility would still be underused and underfunded. The fundamental problems would remain unsolved.

The American Jazz Museum deserves support. We don’t think it should close, even temporarily, to redo its exhibits. But the city also must do more to limit the cost of the museum to taxpayers.

Museum officials, experts and city officials should use the next six weeks to draft a comprehensive plan for reinventing the American Jazz Museum. The written report should include plans for professional staffing, artifact protection and purchasing, fundraising and admission costs.

The museum should not produce concerts or large events with significant financial risk. Instead, the museum must reimagine its role in the community and reconsider the story it wants to tell Kansas City and the world.

The report should also include plans for museum director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner to step away from her post. The museum’s board members should resign as well and provide a plan for picking a new board.

We don’t say this lightly. Kositany-Buckner has worked hard for the museum, in good faith. On Tuesday, she talked with members of the council about her plans for the facility. It’s possible she could remain at the museum in another capacity.

But the museum must have experienced, highly-qualified leadership in the years ahead — not only an executive director, but also a curator, a financial staff, fundraisers. They must execute a precise, focused plan for rebuilding the museum and drawing new visitors.

It won’t be cheap. The written report should include realistic estimates of projected costs and revenue for qualified staff, refreshed exhibits and a better visitor experience.

Kansas City taxpayers will always be a part of that equation. But they shouldn’t be the only part or even the biggest part.

Kansas City’s private sector and its philanthropists can then step forward if they see realistic estimates and time lines for improvement.

The American Jazz Museum and the 18th & Vine District remain works in progress. They are assets worth protecting, but only if the long-term plan provides an opportunity for success.