Toriano Porter

Has Kansas City given the American Jazz Museum a fair shot at success?

Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner
Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner File photo

We’ve seen this play out before: A Kansas City institution clinging to life is rescued, revamped and saved by private and public dollars.

That’s our city’s usual game plan. But this time, it feels like Kansas City has collectively given the acclaimed American Jazz Museum the stiff arm.

After a hasty leadership change — executive director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner was essentially forced to step down — work can now begin to tap into the museum’s potential. But it’s going to take vision and capital.

Financial missteps and the lack of a clear plan were Kositany-Buckner’s undoing, but the hard-line approach taken by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner was unfair. He vowed to withhold the city’s yearly contribution unless changes were made at the top.

About $500,000 of the museum’s yearly $1.6 million budget comes from the city. That contribution will rise to about $730,000 this fiscal year.

“Confidence is so important,” Wagner said. “Stakeholders have to have trust in the organization.”

Kositany-Buckner was never given sufficient resources to improve the museum. But both she and board chair Anita Maltbia agreed new leadership would help bolster civic support for the facility.

“The future success of the museum is very important to me,” Kositany-Buckner said.

The American Jazz Museum draws more than 50 percent of its foot traffic from out of state. With the right vision and leadership, the museum could take its place among the city’s top attractions. But it’s imperative that big-moneyed civic leaders get behind a new long-term plan.

The onus then will be on the new director and board to gain the confidence of elected officials, taxpayers and financial backers.

This approach has paid off for other popular Kansas City attractions.

Union Station lost money for years before embarking on a $250 million renovation after a successful tax initiative in 1996. The unique bistate cultural sales tax was the first of its kind in the nation.

The one-eighth-cent sales tax raised $118 million in five years. The rest came from private funds and federal grants.

Nearly 22 years later, Union Station is self-sustaining, requires no public dollars to operate, and has a private endowment. A change in leadership in 2008 spurred the turnaround.

The Kansas City Museum, which is now part of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, is in the middle of a $12 million renovation. About $6 million was allocated from the city’s museum property tax levy. The other $6 million is a mix of private donations and other public dollars.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial saw its fortunes turn after voters passed a short-term half-cent sales tax in 1998 that raised $30 million.

In 2004, a bond issue allowed the museum to expand. Congress designated it as the country’s official World War I museum in 2006.

A 2016 capital campaign raised more than $12.5 million, thanks to the help of foundation and individual support.

Why didn’t city officials and museum stakeholders explore progressive options to breathe new life into the American Jazz Museum? It’s puzzling that none of these creative solutions was seriously considered.

Kansas City is so closely associated with jazz that it would be shameful if apathy imperiled the future of this museum.

Effective management is needed to change the fortunes of the jazz museum. But it’s a moot point without civic and corporate support.