[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.