Government
7:09 pm
Tue July 23, 2013

6 Questions For Councilman Scott Wagner About The Kansas City Museum

In 2003, Scott Wagner moved to the city's historic Northeast and got interested in neighborhood issues. A year later, Wagner joined the mayor-appointed Kansas City Museum Advisory Board. "I've been involved now for nine years. I've seen quite a bit in that time," he laughs.

Wagner now serves as City Councilman, representing the 1st District At-Large. He weighed in on the advisory board's business plan, which calls for the Kansas City Museum to cut ties with Union Station; the origins of the advisory board; and possible next steps.

Could you explain some of the reasons behind creating the Kansas City Museum Advisory Board?

The advisory board was created back in 2004, really as a means to have a better city oversight of what was going on with the city's assets, which in this case was the Kansas City Museum.

It was a few years since Union Station and the Kansas City Museum Association had merged to form a single entity (Union Station Kansas City, Inc.), with that entity managing the museum. There was just some feeling at that time that Union Station was not doing much with the museum, that it was not moving it forward through programming, that it was not managing it properly.

The advisory board was formed to really look into that and to be an ongoing representative for the city and it's served that function ever since.

A July 16 editorial in The Kansas City Star called the Kansas City Museum "a neglected stepchild of politicians and local arts supporters." How do you respond to that?

The challenge that has always been out there is this idea of knowing that the Union Station Kansas City board (of directors) has a primary purpose and that is for Union Station. The question that I think has arisen over the course of many years has been - is the day-to-day operation and programming for the Kansas City Museum done well enough under its current arrangement?

What I think many people have assumed over the years is that Union Station Kansas City would do more. I think there are structural reasons why that is very difficult to expect.

And so, when people say it's been forgotten, the reality is that the city has put significant funds towards renovating the museum, over $10 million dollars. But I think people's expectation overall for the museum, and a justifiable expectation, is they want to see more; they want to see it fully renovated, they want to see more programs, they want to see the artifacts come back in and be on display.

The problem I think is the system we have isn't very conducive to that.

There have been discussions recently about severing the relationship between Union Station and the Kansas City Museum. Some council members support this, and others, like Councilman Jim Glover, have stated that they do not. Where do you stand on this issue?

This has been a topic of discussion in one form or another ever since the merger of Union Station with the Kansas City Museum, when their governing boards merged to form Union Station Kansas City. Some of these concerns have some historic context to them. But I think what makes them different this time is a will, or a willingness, on a number of parties to finally come to some resolution.

As someone who has been on the museum advisory board for nine years, I've seen many different museum directors and many different Union Station Kansas City executive directors. And what I see is really a system that doesn't allow for the ultimate success of the museum. And that's not to disparage Union Station or its management. The system we have creates far more expectation than Union Station Kansas City is able to satisfy and far less expectation of how we can actually move forward to renovate and rehab the actual museum structure and campus.

It makes sense to talk about that sort of separate (management) entity. But I would also say that you don't do something just to do it. If you're going to do it, it has to be with some expectation that a new entity, if created, will be able to do the job better than Union Station Kansas City.

One of the complications - when it comes to the contract between the city and Union Station over the management of the Kansas City Museum - is the collections. With the 2007 contract with the city, ownership of the Native American artifacts and those of equestrian Loula Long Combs was turned over to Union Station. It seems like that would be a sticking point, if it comes down to separating the organizations.

There's going to have to be a very long and careful conversation on the collections. Obviously, a part of what makes the Kansas City Museum a museum is our artifacts and the ability to display those.

That's one thing that we'll have to spend a lot of time discussing, as we move forward on this conversation. And it's hard for me to say how that will end up. But I think the reality is that most people expect items within the total collection, whether it's considered to be owned by the city or owned by Union Station, that you can actually see them.

I think part of our interest as we have this conversation is: how will these items be curated, how will they be maintained, how will they be displayed? That's part of a very long conversation.

What do you anticipate as the next steps?

There's just a lot of things that will have to be happening simultaneously. Not the least of which is a determination as to whether or not it is in the best interest of the museum to split the museum from Union Station Kansas City. With that has to be some determination on our (the advisory board's) part if we believe that the business plan is executable and executable from another party who would manage the museum.

Management is a means to an end. The end being, I think, the ultimate renovation and reopening of the museum. With that you need to be confident about your strategic plan, your business plan, and then from there, that's when we determine what makes the most sense as far as management. And who, or what entity, should be performing that.

My hope is that we can get back to the point of what is our outcome that we want and what is the mechanism that gets us there.

Will any decisions be made soon?

My sense of it is that one way or another it will get resolved here in the next four to six months. What I don't want to do and what I would certainly not advocate doing is just making a decision based on a personnel decision (the July 8 firing of museum director Christopher Leitch) which is what I think is what's driving a lot of this interest in this particular topic.

I think what's important is you go back to what is it that's really going to help the museum move forward.

Interview has been condensed and edited