KC’s 2017 jazz fest flopped. Will 2018 arts festival with Janelle Monáe fare better?

Janelle Monae is one of the artists featured in a new arts festival called Open Spaces.
Janelle Monae is one of the artists featured in a new arts festival called Open Spaces. File photo

Many Kansas Citians will recall the ill-fated 2017 Jazz & Heritage Festival that featured world-class entertainers, such as Chick Corea, Bobby Watson and Brandy Norwood.

For one brief, shining moment, Kansas City was on the international map with a festival worthy of the city that helped mold America’s original art form.

But the shine faded quickly. Just days after the festival closed its run, the bad news began trickling in. Some performers, including headliners John Scofield and Regina Carter, received checks that bounced.

It turned out that organizers had vastly overreached and that the deficit from the three-day jam would reach nearly $450,000.

City Council members were rightly outraged. This spring, the American Jazz Museum director responsible for staging the festival, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, left her position, and most of the museum’s board of directors did, too.

In recent weeks, though, Kansas City has signaled that it’s not out of the festival business. The city is chipping in $500,000 to help cover costs for something new and different — a two-month-long arts festival called Open Spaces featuring local, national and international artists. The unabashed aim is to showcase Kansas City.

Centered in Swope Park but with events planned throughout the city, the festival will feature all manner of arts from major installation pieces to dance to sculpture and film. Music has a place, too. Janelle Monáe, a Kansas City, Kansas, native who hasn’t headlined a concert here since 2013. has been announced as a featured artist.

And, yes, major jazz performers also are on the bill, including Vijay Iyer, who’s featured on the cover of the August issue of Downbeat magazine as the jazz artist of the year.

That Kansas City is striding boldly back into the concert game might catch some people short, given last year’s fiasco. What’s the city doing in the concert business anyway when Kansas City appears to have a full complement of concert venues and promoters?

But we’re encouraged by how Kansas City has approached this event, which appears to be a galaxy away from last year’s debacle. This new festival, Open Spaces, is a public-private venture. More than $1.2 million in private dollars has been raised so far to add to the city’s $500,000 share.

It’s but one ingredient in a long-conceived cultural plan the council approved in 2014 that put in place the city’s Office of Culture and Creative Services. Thousands of citizens took part in surveys and focus groups to chart a path forward. For Open Spaces, professional event planners have been hired, including Dan Cameron, who has staged major events worldwide.

Putting on cultural events like this is what major cities do in bids to boost their image, reel in tourism dollars and provide memorable experiences for the hometown crowd. Mayor Sly James has rightly gauged that Kansas City should play in that league.

This festival appears to have promise, although we will reserve judgment on the wisdom of the city funding major concerts. Fortunately, the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants feel of the jazz fest has been replaced by the professional hue of Open Spaces.

You may recall that in 2017, organizers of the jazz festival initially announced that Monáe would be their headliner. The star then took to Twitter to declare that announcement false. She wasn’t coming after all. “It’s untrue information,” she said. “An alternative fact.”

She hasn’t issued any such tweets this time.