UMKC downtown arts campus loses key project funding

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In late January, the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, headed by Julia Irene Kauffman, announced the withdrawal of a $20 million pledge toward the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s proposed downtown arts campus. The pledge was the lead gift in a $48 million campaign. Its withdrawal constitutes a setback for the project, which had already seen numerous complications since its inception in 2011.

The downtown arts campus project began with several studies and assessments of the myriad options in Kansas City. The reports created in the incipient stages detail many possibilities for location, building configurations, timelines and other details. The decision on location came down to two Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts-adjacent spots. The chosen location is just south of the Kauffman Center between 17th and 18th Streets. Approximately 700 students and staff would use the campus.  

The inspiration for the downtown campus location came from urban-located arts campuses around the country. These include Juilliard in New York City and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, both of which provided cultural growth for their cities.

“With the arts campus would come scores of students, bringing young and creative people downtown. They’d mix with office workers and fill the commercial Power & Light District and the more organic Crossroads area,” Scott Canon reported in the Kansas City Star June 28, 2017.

Additionally, the proximity to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a world-class performance venue that hosts world-class performers, to the campus has been compared to Juilliard’s proximity to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera.

Adding vibrancy to Kansas City’s arts scene is not the only selling point. The Kansas City Chamber of Commerce cites a study by the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) estimating “that the economic activity associated with the construction of the arts campus and reuse of the Volker campus would average, at minimum, approximately 409 jobs, $30.8 million in real GDP, and $22.9 million in real disposable personal income per year over 25 years. Of these impacts, a little over half results from the construction itself, with the rest generated by the expansion of arts and other educational programs at UMKC.”

Despite popular and legislative support, as well as evidence that the campus would boost Kansas City’s economy and arts culture, in June of last year Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens vetoed $48 million dollars for the project.

The University anticipated the governor’s veto and preempted it. In a statement hours before the veto, the University said that it would seek alternative funds rather than go through the originally planned Higher Education Capital Funds 50-50 matching program. The matching program, established in 2013, gives the Missouri General Assembly power to allocate money “in the form of matching funds for the funding of capital projects.”

Gov. Greitens stated providing funding for the project “would put taxpayers on the hook for over $75 million to build and run a conservatory for dancers and art students.” He then lauded UMKC’s “plan to pay for it by making tough budget decisions and using private funds along with strong leaders in the Kansas City community.”

This decision by Greitens, a self-identified “budget hawk,” is part of a litany of his previous and proposed cuts to higher education. AP reported Jan. 22 that Greitens’ “2019 budget plan would give colleges and universities $92 million less than originally budgeted for the 2018 fiscal year and $68 million less than they actually are expected to get based on cuts Greitens previously made to the 2018 budget.”

Though the new budget would add about $50 million in “basic aid” to K-12 education, AP reported that “it would still fall about $48 million short of what’s considered full funding under state law, because it doesn’t include all the additional money called for in preschool education programs.” Gov. Greitens’ budget cuts have drawn harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle. These budget cuts add to his tenuous reputation. He is currently embroiled in a sex scandal involving alleged blackmail.

After the setback caused by the veto, UMKC decided to raise the money through private donations. The lead gift in this campaign came from Kansas City’s ubiquitous funder, the Kauffman Foundation. The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation pledged $20 million in 2013 at a presentation in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre attended by civic leaders and UMKC administrators. The gift, according to the Kansas City Chamber of Congress, was “contingent on UMKC raising an additional $70 million in funding for the project’s first phase within a period of three years.” As of this year, UMKC had raised $48 million for the campus, including Kauffman’s gift.

The future of the downtown arts campus is debated. Some call this setback staggering and unsurmountable and say that the project has collapsed. In a recent statement after Kauffman’s announcement, however, UMKC says that the school will continue on the project.

“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.”

Whatever the outcome of the project, its journey has been rocky. The entire process has raised questions about state funding for education and the arts, as well as the future of arts in Kansas City.

Cover photo courtesy of Ontarget Interactive.

Elliott Yoakum

Elliott is a sophomore Oxbridge literature and theory major and a staff writer for The Hilltop Monitor. He also manages the podcast, Hilltopics.

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