After spending nearly $1 million on Open Spaces event, KC can’t afford another bailout

In August, a new mayor and several first-time City Council members will be seated in Kansas City. Here is an idea they should add to their agenda: Get City Hall out of the bailout business for struggling art festivals.

The city contributed nearly $1 million to last fall’s ambitious Open Spaces 2018 visual and performing arts exhibition. About $875,000 of the festivals’ $3 million-plus budget came from the city’s coffers.

The tally included $500,000 from the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund. The city is also on the hook for a $375,000 loan to KC Creates, the nonprofit entity that produced Open Spaces.

A city spokesman said the loan was a short-term solution to help KC Creates cover cash-flow issues.

All told, the organization lost close to $380,000, according to an expenditure report provided to the city. The hope is to sell the remaining exhibits still on the market to make up the difference.

“I’m confident we will,” said Cheryl Kimmi, executive director of KC Creates. There are no guarantees the city will recoup its money, though.

Outgoing Mayor Sly James’ push to support the arts has merit. The inaugural Open Spaces was a public-private venture and a James priority that emerged from an arts task force he convened.

But taxpayers should not be on the hook for a two-months-long arts festival aimed at rivaling more established events in Austin, New Orleans and other cities.

The city is facing many urgent challenges that require both attention and resources, including crumbling infrastructure and a stubbornly high violent crime rate. The money spent on a city-sponsored festival could be be put to good use tackling any number of issues.

Make no mistake: Open Spaces is a worthy endeavor. And its eventual success could be boon to Kansas City. But organizers of this visual and performing arts exhibition must find a way to make the numbers work without a safety net provided by taxpayer dollars.

Proponents say success of the nine-week arts festival can’t be assessed just in numbers. And maybe it can’t. But what can be easily measured is the city’s financial contribution, and this was a pricey proposition.

Remember the city’s bailout in 2017 of the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival? Poor planning, financial overreach and bounced checks compelled the city to bail out the American Jazz Museum, the jazz festival’s organizer, to the tune of $117,000.

City Hall extended another $300,000 lifeline to the museum last year. This year, the city will provide close to $1 million for museum operations.

KC Creates has a strong track record. The group is responsible for two of the city’s more popular festivals: the 15-year-old Fringe Festival and WaterFire KC. Neither event came out of the gate financially strong, so there is hope that a scaled-down, less ambitious Open Spaces could flourish.

But that success should not come at the expense of taxpayers.

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