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UMKC Reorganizes Arts Programs Ahead Of Renewed Push For Conservatory Facility

Helix Architecture + Design
A rendering of plans for the UMKC Conservatory's downtown arts campus. UMKC now says the newly announced merger of the Conservatory and the theater department 'will require a different building configuration.'

The University of Missouri-Kansas City on Thursday announced the merger of two arts programs: the Conservatory of Music and Dance and the Department of Theatre. 

The theater department will move from the College of Arts and Sciences to a school in the Conservatory, according to an email to faculty and staff written by UMKC Interim Chancellor and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer.

"In a time when state support for higher education has diminished overall, we must invest in our areas of greatest strength and deepest impact," Bichelmeyer wrote.

The change will impact plans for a new facility for the Conservatory, she wrote, saying "the merger will require a different building configuration than had been previously planned."

UMKC's plans to build a downtown campus for the Conservatory were thrown into uncertainty last year when Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, despite overwhelming approval from the Missouri General Assembly, vetoed $48 million in state funding for the $96 million project. UMKC officials had raised $48 million, in anticipation that the state would match the other half of the estimated cost.

Then, in January, the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation announced that it was rescinding a $20 million pledge for the project. In response, UMKC said it would continue pursuing the project.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
In 2014, Conservatory student Haley Crane held on to a small bunch of balloons at the announced site of the downtown campus south of the Kauffman Center.

“We are forging ahead with our effort to build a new Conservatory and will be announcing next steps soon,” the university said in a statement at the time. “We are continuing to work through options that bring together the needs of key stakeholders — campus, donors, civic and state leaders — with our practical needs for program space, related facilities requirements, location parameters and financial support for the project.”

In Thursday's announcement, Bichelmeyer said she had appointed Conservatory Dean Diane Helfers Petrella to a three-year contract to oversee a task that will require "significant time and attention from a dedicated leader."

That includes exploring "on-campus public-private development options to complete the project," Bichelmeyer wrote.

Helix Architecture + Design of Kansas City and HGA Architects and Engineers of Minneapolis were selected in 2014 to design a new facility for the Conservatory south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

But Bichelmeyer's statement said UMKC would "introduce a Request for Interest (RFI) to the philanthropic and developer community to identify opportunities for off-campus land and existing buildings."

"I feel very confident that, as we move forward over the next couple of years, we're going to find a solution for the facilities issues that have plagued the Conservatory for so many years, that we're going to come out with a performing arts unit that's stronger than it's ever been," Petrella told KCUR. 

Tom Mardikes, a professor of sound design and former theater department chair, said merging the department and the Conservatory would be "helpful and interesting."

"We've had longstanding collaborations with the Conservatory," Mardikes told KCUR. "For years, our lighting people have worked with the Conservatory, in terms of dance, concerts, and operas."

The University of Missouri System designated UMKC as campus for the visual and performing arts decades ago. The merger, Mardikes said, would make the programs even more robust. 

"It's going to make things easier, hopefully, to advocate for all the performing arts: music, theater and dance."

Editor's note: KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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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