Editorials

KC budget includes $1 million more for jazz museum. When will taxpayers say ‘enough’?

Kansas City’s new budget calls for spending more than $1 million in the next fiscal year on the operations of the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine.

Many taxpayers will recoil at a seven-figure subsidy for the museum, which has been plagued by leadership problems. They may also be worried about an additional $300,000 approved last year for physical improvements at the facility.

That frustration is not misplaced. The museum must understand that and fix it this year.

The museum and its mission deserve support. Kansas City’s place in the history of jazz is well-known and should be celebrated and remembered at an institution like the museum.

Taxpayers spent millions building the structure, and millions more keeping it open. Those subsidies were important and were the right thing to do.

But 2019 must be the year that the American Jazz Museum turns itself around. Another $1 million expenditure is only acceptable if it leads to a better visitor experience and significant increases in museum attendance.

Fixing the museum won’t be easy. On a recent visit, several interactive exhibits were out of order. Paint and wallpaper were in disrepair. The museum has not added significant artifacts in two decades.

“The permanent exhibits and their accompanying technology have not been changed or refreshed since the museum opened,” a consultant warned a year ago. “The visitor experience is seen as stale and offering little to entice repeat visits.”

It makes little sense to spend another $1 million without a real plan to fix those problems — and without real evidence of progress.

City Manager Troy Schulte said some of the $1 million will pay for artifact preservation and for disentangling the museum from other operating obligations at 18th and Vine. But he says the museum needs a “strategic plan” before he spends $300,000 on facility improvements.

Yet the American Jazz Museum still lacks a permanent director. The museum’s new board of directors has started to look for one but may be months away from a decision.

And the museum needs more than a qualified director. It needs a curator with a budget to acquire fresh exhibits and artifacts. It needs an energetic program manager. And it needs a development director who can raise money to keep the facility running.

We won’t pre-judge the work of the new board in addressing these concerns. But time is running out. By spring, the museum should have a blueprint in place for recovery and renewal. By fall, there should be evidence of improvements and higher attendance.

Otherwise, spending another $1 million on museum operations cannot be justified.

It can be done. The National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial was equally troubled years ago but recovered — with taxpayers’ help. It’s now one of the best-known institutions in the city.

A similar recovery is possible at the American Jazz Museum. But the work must start now, before another $1 million disappears.

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