City severs management contract with Union Station

Northeast News
December 11, 2013

With a unanimous vote Dec. 5, the Kansas City City Council passed an ordinance to sever a 20-year management agreement with Union Station Kansas City, Inc. (USKC) to operate the Kansas City Museum. The separation will become official on May 1, 2014.

Over the years, the relationship between the Kansas City Museum and Union Station became strained and peaked earlier this year when Union Station’s Chief Executive Officer George Guastello fired Christopher Leitch, the Kansas City Museum’s historic house director. In 2005, the Kansas City Museum lost its accreditation with the American Association of Museums (AAM) as a result of the museum’s loss of governance to USKC and USKC’s financial challenges, and is still unaccredited today.

“What occurred was unexpected on all accounts,” said City Council member Scott Wagner regarding the merging of Union Station and Kansas City Museum entities to form USKC in 2000. “(Union Station) did not create the cash flow as expected; there were more issues that came up that were not recognized at the time. The system that was put in place merging these two entities I don’t think ever considered that one entity would get more attention than the other.”

A number of Northeast residents will say that when the entities merged, the Kansas City Museum faded into the shadow of Union Station and became neglected. There were also donation and collection snafus as well as some who questioned Union Station’s integrity on spending the museum’s mil levy.

Once the separation agreement takes effect in May, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which already overseas several museums in Kansas City, will manage the museum’s operations and programming. The city will lease space with Union Station annually for $131,000 to house a portion of the collections, but the city will retain all of the museum mil levy funds. While Union Station will continue to own a majority of the collection, the city will be in charge of maintaining the collection.

“After much deliberation, many stakeholder inputs, we came up with, I think, a very, very good solution to this,” City Council member Jan Marcason said. “I think everyone is happy with this resolution.”

Kansas City Museum Advisory Board (KCMAB) members have said the ordinance is a step in the right direction for the Kansas City Museum. As part of the ordinance, KCMAB will be dissolved. However, a non-profit organization, the Kansas City Museum Foundation (KCMF), has been formed and includes most of KCMAB’s current members. Leitch has been elected as executive director of KCMF and Martha Lally, who chaired KCMAB, will serve as executive committee member. KCMF will assist with fundraising for the museum and is continuing to define its role to support the museum.

“For long-time supporters of the museum, it cannot be overstated the confidence and optimism that is inspired by this action of the City Council,” Leitch said. “Like all civic actions, it was sausage making, but the future of the museum hasn’t looked brighter for a very long time; we owe thanks to our city leaders for ensuring the future of this really wonderful community asset.”

Lally said she believes the parks department is the right entity to oversee the museum and that they have a proven track record.

“The plan is in the best interest of the museum; it’s been a long time coming,” Lally said. “Twelve years of disputes are nearly resolved.”

While Lally supports the new plan, she said attention must be paid to collection storage.

A mold outbreak in the caves in 2011 damaged some artifacts and cost $150,000 to remediate. At Union Station, the collection is stored under a restaurant and under water pipes, which have leaked in the past.

“To store something under water pipes is almost unthinkable,” she said. “Museum professionals would never store anything under water pipes or under a restaurant where there’s a leaky grease trap that ends up on artifacts below. We’re just not certain that storage areas available at Union Station are of a quality necessary to perpetuate and preserve museum artifacts.”

Museum professionals should be consulted regarding proper storage of the collections, she said.

Union Station Board of Directors Chairman Bob Regnier said the board is pleased with the new agreement and that it will best serve the future of the Kansas City Museum.

“It creates an opportunity for us to create a new chapter in the history of the Kansas City Museum…” Wagner said. “I think we’re all very happy because at the end of the day its about outcome – what’s good for our community and our entire city.”

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