The Kansas African American Museum made a difficult but wise decision to walk away from land on which it had hoped to construct a new building. By focusing on creating a sound financial footing, the museum should have a stronger and more secure future.
KAAM sent a letter to the city of Wichita this week saying that it was terminating its lease agreement on 1.2 acres of land along the Arkansas River downtown. The city leased the property to the museum for $1 a year in 2005 with the expectation it would raise funds for the construction of a new building.
The down economy and personnel changes at the museum hurt its ability to raise money. So after much discussion, the museum’s board of directors decided that it was best to return the land and regroup.
“We’re dealing with reality,” board chairwoman Lee Williams told The Eagle editorial board.
The museum plans to spend the next three to five years stabilizing its finances. It already has some good momentum: The museum turned a profit last year and was able to pay off its debts.
“We can build on that,” said executive director Mark McCormick.
The museum also is trying to expand its mission. In addition to wanting to have more of a statewide focus, it wants to be relevant to people of all races. It wants to help build bridges and remove racial barriers.
The museum needs to challenge perspectives, engage conversations and enlighten the entire community, Williams said.
The museum still needs a different building. Though its current facility – the former Calvary Baptist Church at 601 N. Water – is historic, it lacks the climate controls needed to properly store and display the museum’s collections. It’s also nearly surrounded by the Sedgwick County Jail.
“I love that old place,” McCormick said of the church building, but it “is really unsustainable.”
Once it gets its operations in better order, the museum will look for a new location, perhaps an existing building downtown.
McCormick appreciates the generosity of the city in providing the land and the support the museum receives from the Sedgwick County Commission. “There is a whole lot of good will out there for the museum,” he said.
He and Williams emphasized that the museum is not “giving up” by canceling its lease. Rather, its leaders are hopeful for its future.
“The best is yet to come for this museum,” Williams said.
Sometimes the bravest step forward is a step back.