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Kansas City's American Jazz Museum Should Belong To The Entire City, Officials Say

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
The American Jazz Museum opened its doors 20 years ago this year.

Financial woes at the American Jazz Museum aren't sitting well with city and state officials. 

"I'm concerned, like a lot of other people, about what's going on," says Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. "I don't think we ought to ignore this, ignore the problems, or dismiss them lightly."

Over Memorial Day weekend, attendance at the museum's inaugural Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival was disappointing. When it came time to pay the bills, 10 musicians, including eight from the Kansas City metro area, were issued checks that bounced.

Last week, an unpaid Kansas City musician brought the issue to public attention when he vented on social media. He's since been issued a new check.

"I think it’s fair for anyone to say that this is significant," says City Councilman Quinton Lucas, who represents the city’s 3rd District at-large and serves on the museum’s board of directors. "It’s disappointing."

To meet payroll, the museum got an advance of $117,000 in city funds, extended its line of credit, and asked board members to chip in.

"The weather impacted us. On Saturday, it rained, so it impacted our income," executive director Cheptoo Kositany-Bucknertold The Kansas City Star on Thursday. 

According to Kositany-Buckner, the organization is "really digging deep" into the difficulties of this year's festival. She said a strategic plan is in the works to seek more community support. 

"This museum is not a 3rd District museum," she said. "It is the entire city's museum."

But Cleaver, who was instrumental in redeveloping the 18th and Vine Jazz District, says that is not the public perception. 

“The American Jazz Museum is viewed as a 3rd District museum, or project, or attraction," Cleaver says. "And nothing else in the city is viewed that way."

The museum is housed in a city-owned building, and its artifacts belong to the city. And the organization has relied on taxpayer dollars for two decades; about one-third of the museum's budget comes from city subsidies.

Cleaver served as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, from 1991 to 1999, and celebrated the opening of the district's museums two decades ago. But, he says, in those early years he "made a mistake" with the American Jazz Museum that still reverberates, by defining its mission as tied to its location. 

"At the time, this was 20 years ago remember, my fear was that when I left office, we might not have an advocate for the museum, or for 18th and Vine, for that matter. And that it could eventually become ignored and collapse," he says. "And that has to change."

Cleaver says he expects to talk to city leaders about a mindset shift, "by having this as a project that the entire city is responsible for and committed to. If we do that, I think we can help solve some of the problems that we have right now."

Lucas says the museum should seek out ideas from a variety of perspectives. 

“I think when you look at the successful museums in Kansas City, those that have broader buy-in from a larger community are the ones that are successful,” he says. 

"I think an ongoing challenge for the jazz museum is to consider itself as independent," Lucas adds. "And I would say independent from the 3rd City Council district, independent from the city of Kansas City, Missouri.”

According to Lucas, the board and the administration need to get "on the right side of our financial books, make sure we’re cutting administrative costs, and enhancing our fundraising abilities and our revenue-generation."

Plans call for hiring a chief financial officer to get the museum's fiscal house in order.  

"This is the sort of thing that should never happen again," Lucas says.

"When there's something wrong, something like this, we got to fix it," Cleaver adds.

The next board of directors meeting is scheduled for July 18. Museum officials are also expected to address financial concerns at the City Council's finance and governance committee meeting on July 19.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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