Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Replay: Kansas City’s Edifice Complex

[This post originally appeared on January 12, 2007]

One of the trends firmly entrenched in the urban development and arts world today is to spend a staggeringly large sum of money to hire a star architect to design a new building for local institutions. Cities and donors have long had an “edifice complex” so I suppose this isn’t surprising per se, but the scale of some of these investments is interesting. It also highlights how architecture as a discipline seems to be a thriving. Indeed, most of these projects are primarily about the architecture and building more so than the contents. Perhaps nothing shows better the success of architecture as a field today as the willingness of communities to invest huge amounts into it – often in stark contrast to the actual on the field product that the buildings are ostensibly designed to host.

This well-illustrated by the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. This multi-purpose facility will cost $365 million and will house the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Ballet. Of course it has a “statement” design as a deliberate attempt to put the building – and Kansas City – on the map.

But when you contrast the cost of the facility with the annual budget of the institutions that will be housed there, some troubling questions arise. The Kansas City Symphony has a budget of around $9.1 million. This puts it well below the top tier of US orchestras. Peer cities such as Indianapolis and Cincinnati spend about three times this amount. Other peer cities come in at double this amount. The Kansas City Ballet budget is around $4.5 million and the opera’s budget is $3.3 million.

Add these together and you get $16.9 million per year as the three major tenants combined operating budgets. Compare that to the $365 million cost of the building, and you begin to wonder. The principal amount of the building cost would pay for the entire operating budget of its three tenants for 21 years. More to the point, a $365 million endowment that earned 5% per year in income would generate over $18 million annually – enough to fund the three organizations in perpetuity, with change left over for other things.

It’s clear that the people of Kansas City value having a nice building over having world class performing arts. Of course buildings are always going to be popular civic investments. But the sheer scale of this price tag versus the relatively small budgets of the organizations contained therein raises serious questions about the priorities of the people in Kansas City (and by extension, the residents of other cities with similar projects underway) – and illustrates just how far below architecture classical music and ballet really stand.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture
Cities: Kansas City

7 Responses to “Replay: Kansas City’s Edifice Complex”

  1. Randy Simes says:

    Great insight here Aaron. The building looks interesting and I appreciate its relationship to the surrounding urban form, but I think you're spot on with this one. They need to improve the product and create a long-lasting funding mechanism that will ensure these institutions will be around for as long as any building they build for them.

  2. Stephen Gross says:

    An endowment to fund the arts? That's crazy talk. Next thing, you'll be talking about a "national endowment for the arts"… Oh wait…

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks, Randy.

    Stephen, in fairness, the National Endowment for the Arts is not an endowment, it is a government spending program. It routes program oriented dollars to various institutions and people, but doesn't generally contribute meaningful operating funds to organizations on a recurring basis, which is what an actual endowment would do.

    I actually don't think it is healthy for an organization to be overly endowed. This leads to it become insular and unresponsive. Arts and other civic organizations should have to continually justify themselves to the public through selling tickets and raising annual fund contributions. I think the current approach of 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 is about right.

  4. Chris says:

    I agree with you that the size and scope of the Kauffman Center dwarfs the resident organizations that will reside there. But don't you think that a building like this has the potential to help those organizations grow into world class performing arts organizations? The Nashville Symphony has experienced a huge amount of both financial and artistic growth thanks to their new performing arts center.

    I think the real question is not should we choose between a building and our arts, but how will this building help our arts? And that question will start to be answered once the symphony, opera, and ballet reach lease agreements with the center (i.e. What kind of access to the PAC will the artists have? Will the PAC save prime dates for visiting groups and treat it's resident organizations like 2nd class citizens? Will the resident organizations receive fair rates on using the hall?).

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Chris, if the facility serves as a catalyst to raise the ambition level of the arts groups housed there, that's fantastic. Of course, a lot of that will come down to funding.

    The Nashville example is a good one. First, they bucked the trend and built a more classical performing arts center, something that caught them a lot of flack in the national media. But I think the Schermerhorn Center is very nice and very tasteful.

    The Nashville Symphony has been on an upswing. I plan to do a future post on this, but one thing that really distinguishes the southern boomtowns is that they take a pretty clear eyed view of their standing and know where they are lacking. Nashville and other southern cities know they are lacking in traditional high culture, and they want to address it.

  6. Lyric Opera says:


    Thanks for this engaging discussion!

    As a member of the marketing staff for the Lyric Opera, I'll admit I have some biases about the benefits performing in Kauffman Center will bring.

    The Kauffman Center will afford the Lyric Opera with a much larger orchestra pit than we currently have in the Lyric Theatre. Performing works by Wagner, for example, will now be within our capability.

    The Kauffman Center will also afford us the opportunity to improve the visual "spectacle" of our productions, as we will have full wing space and larger backstage space to utilize; currently we are limited in our scenic design — we can only "fit" so much scenery backstage with no wing space in the Lyric Theatre.

    The Lyric Opera is already making investments in hiring world class singers (you can learn more at

    Of course you bring forward a really good point about what fuels the artistic engine — operating capital. The Lyric Opera has been planning and budgeting for the move in to the Kauffman Center for several years now. The economy surprised us last fall, and we are reworking our plan a bit in light of it, but we are still on track to make a successful move into the Center.

    Speaking as an idividual and not a representative of the Opera, I do believe the Kauffman Center, being a presenter of art itself, will dramatically change the face of the arts in Kansas City, in ways that remain to be seen.

    Jim DeGood

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Jim, thanks for sharing a bit about your organization and the Kaufmann Center. Best of luck to you with the new building and navigating the choppy economic waters we are in.

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