On December 21, 2005, the Liberty Memorial Association celebrated an achievement. Members of the nonprofit group held a reception to mark their success in raising $26.5 million for a World War I museum.
Politicians and the public were invited to the event, which was held at the memorial on a day when the sun hid behind the clouds. A Kansas City Star photographer took a picture of former U.S. Rep. Karen McCarthy (who died in 2010), hugging a veteran of the Korean War.
Taxpayers made it possible for the museum's supporters to raise their glasses at the late-morning reception. In 2004, voters approved a $20 million bond issue to pay for most of the construction costs. Congressional earmarks provided an additional $900,000.
A World War I museum opened to acclaim underneath the deck of the monument a year later. But in one respect, the 2005 celebration was a sham.
Voters approved the bond issue on the stipulation that the Liberty Memorial Association would raise the money necessary to complete the museum. The effort fell short. The association had to borrow $3.8 million from the city to hold up its end of the bargain. Only a portion of that debt has been repaid.
The celebration of an unrealized fundraising goal fits a pattern. What is now known as the National World War I Museum was built partly on accounting tricks and broken promises. Parks department officials appeared to misuse public money in order to create the space for the museum, which is not as self-sufficient as its promoters said it would be.
Still, museum officials insist that the investment has been worthwhile. The leadership points to the growing budget, expanded programs and celebrity endorsements (Kevin Costner has recorded radio spots) as evidence of a thriving institution. "It's just been a wild success," says Brian Alexander, who became president and CEO in 2007.
The cost to taxpayers has been astronomical, however. Government sources contributed most of the money to restore the monument and add the museum. The subsidy shopping continued after the project was completed. Several days after the museum opened, on December 6, 2006, it captured $207,000 in city funds that became available when an aquatic center north of the river came in under budget.
Museum officials say they've reduced their reliance on public support. Alexander says aggressive efforts have been made to generate income — an increased admission price has helped — and broaden the donor base. "We're able to largely take care of ourselves," he says.
Alexander likes to describe the museum in terms of a child who has been rushed into adulthood. It's his way of communicating the idea that the museum has become a much more professional operation under his care. Keep in mind, he says, "There has never been a systematic and well-coordinated manner in which we raised funds" — a fairly significant point to address. "Everything changed for us," he says.
One significant change took place earlier this year. In February, the museum announced that Carl DiCapo, the public face of the Liberty Memorial for many years, was stepping down from his role in the organization. At one time, DiCapo was both the chairman of the Liberty Memorial Association and a paid consultant for the museum, a dubious arrangement.
DiCapo's involvement with the Liberty Memorial began in 1986, when he was a member of the parks commission. He rallied support for the renovation of the monument and the construction of the museum. Yet his departure was recognized not with a banquet but with a press release.
DiCapo, it turns out, was accused of sexually harassing a member of the museum staff during his final year on the job. He also argued with Alexander's predecessor, a retired military officer, at a public event at the museum. Disregarding the solemnity of their surroundings, the two men squared off while standing on the glass footbridge that spans a display of 9,000 artificial poppies, each one representing 1,000 of the Great War's combat deaths.