The conclusions reached by a private consulting firm hired to investigate a debt crisis at The American Jazz Museum are grim. Located in the historic 18th and Vine District of Kansas City, the museum has failed to meet its potential as a tourist attraction, or to excite the community about the unique place KC holds in jazz history. Opened in 1997 with high hopes and substantial financial sponsorship, it has never become self sufficient. It’s projected revenue streams, a gift shop and two performance venues, have always operated at a loss. This is in contrast to the very successful Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in the same building. The difference, says the report, is a lack of vision and poor execution by management.
Still, things were relatively stable until 2016, when a pattern of over spending by new management began, ultimately culminating in a disastrous first ever Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival. Tickets were too expensive for people living in the neighborhood, and the festival lost nearly half a million dollars. In the end, the city had to step in to help pay musicians when checks began to bounce.
The director of the museum, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, was critized in the report for “numerous missteps, questionable decisions and a lack of transparency” and has since resigned. The report, which was released in April, even recommended closing the museum for a year while a new strategy was put in place. But, says Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte Closing the museum, even temporarily, is not an option. He was more open to limiting hours during any rehabilitation of the facilities.
The museum itself has been criticized for it’s static exhibits which offer little incentive for the local public to make return visits. These exhibits, highlighting the lives of Duke Ellingtion, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, also fail to inform visitors of Kansas City’s own jazz heritage. From Bennie Moten, to Charlie Parker, from swing to bop, Kansas City has always been a jazz town and the new consensus is that the museum should be redesigned to reflect that.
The city will again need to step up to help the organization restructure. A 23 member board is being replaced with a much less unwieldy number of directors. New interactive exhibits are in the works and the 2018 festival will proceed as planned. Exhibition spaces will be updated with the latest technology. Kansas City is one of the four cornerstones of early jazz, along with New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. The rebranded museum, will help make sure the public remembers.