When Union Station CEO George Guastello fired Kansas City Museum director Christopher Leitch on June 9, the dismissal caught most museum supporters by surprise.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Northeast News publisher Mike Bushnell told The Pitch that day.
At least one person might have seen it coming: Amy Hull, a retired Kansas City police detective who has served on two boards overseeing the Kansas City Museum. She'd written a memo to Leitch, dated October 18, 2011, recounting a conversation she believed indicated that the longtime museum director's job had been in jeopardy.
In 2011, Hull was a member of the Friends of Kansas City Museum board, a membership wing of the Northeast Kansas City institution. On July 29, 2011, she met with fellow board member Pam Lipari and with president Katrina Henke to discuss the Friends of the Kansas City Museum's potential merger with Union Station. According to Hull's account of the conversation, Henke mentioned conversations she'd had with Leitch, who is openly gay, about Leitch's "bringing too many gays" onto the Friends board, and how that "discouraged other people" from joining.
At some point, Guastello caught wind of Henke's remarks to Leitch and told her that she had "made a mistake with Christopher" but, according to Hull's memo, "George said it was okay, he would find some other reason to get rid of him [Leitch]."
"Because of this statement, I could only assume that President Henke and Guastello had been in conversation about this and Guastello reassured President Henke that he would get 'rid of' you," continues Hull's memo.
Hull's recollection of the conversation triggered a Union Station human-resources investigation, the results of which are unclear.
Lipari recalls the conversation differently. She says Hull was opposed to the Friends' merger with Union Station and came into the conversation with an agenda. Lipari doesn't recall Henke making remarks about gay people.
"I honestly don't recall anything being said regarding Christopher bringing too many gay people in," Lipari tells The Pitch. "There was never that conversation."
Hull insists otherwise.
"It was an off-the-wall conversation," Hull tells The Pitch. "Part of it was just the fact that I was hearing this, and the second part of the shock was that she would tell me this and the fact that anybody would entertain those kinds of attitudes."
Henke, now a Union Station board member and executive with Milbank Manufacturing, tells The Pitch that Hull's contention is "ridiculous" and has declined to comment further.
In a written response to questions delivered to his office by The Pitch, Guastello says, "We will not comment on allegations, hearsay and innuendos, nor will we comment on the misinformation that is being publicly reported by others without regard for, or interest in, the truth."
Leitch declined to comment on the matter.
Leitch was in charge of city-owned Corinthian Hall but was a Union Station employee, reporting to Guastello, due to the 2000 merger of the Kansas City Museum and Union Station. That merger arrangement, now widely considered clunky and impractical, was struck at a time when Union Station was receiving $118 million in tax revenue from the Bistate Tax — a sales-tax increase that drew from Jackson, Clay and Platte counties in Missouri, and Johnson County in Kansas, to renovate the decaying edifice at Main Street and Pershing Road.
Union Station officials were under pressure to fix up the old train depot and make it a viable financial operation. That emphasis made many Northeast residents feel that one of its own visible treasures — Corinthian Hall and the Kansas City Museum — had unfairly taken a backseat. Leitch was regarded as a passionate museum advocate, and his dismissal represents a spike in an already uneasy and complicated relationship — one that the city is trying to figure out a way to split.
Even if Kansas City removes Corinthian Hall from Union Station's management and assumes control of the constantly under-construction mansion at 3218 Gladstone, the future of the Kansas City Museum is murky. How will the city raise the $20 million to finish renovation of the Northeast estate? How will City Hall manage a collection of 70,000 artifacts, most of which Union Station claims to own? And if those things can be figured out, who will be in charge of the Kansas City Museum?
Kansas City lumber magnate and philanthropist R.A. Long built Corinthian Hall in 1910 for $1 million (roughly $23.6 million in today's figures). The Beaux Arts mansion became his family's home until his death in 1934.
Long's survivors went on to found Longview Farm in Lee's Summit, eventually resulting in a vacant Corinthian Hall in limbo. It wouldn't be the last time.
Pressure from the Great Depression prodded the Long family into deeding Corinthian Hall to the Kansas City Museum Association to display the city's history. But the association discovered that the museum was not a profitable enterprise.
In 1948, the museum association sold the property to Kansas City for $1 but still held title to the collection of artifacts in the first of many vaguely worded contracts that would bedevil the ownership of the city's historical collection, a problem that persists today. In 1976, the last of three efforts to move the Kansas City Museum out of Corinthian Hall and into Liberty Memorial or Union Station failed. But one thing passed that year: a mill levy that would direct property taxes for the Kansas City Museum, which remained in Corinthian Hall. Today that mill levy raises about $1.4 million a year.
By the 1990s, the restoration of Union Station became a major civic priority, enough so that a sales-tax increase was passed on both sides of the state line to fund the restoration. Again, the Kansas City Museum was slated for a move to Union Station to become the refurbished depot's lead tenant. The thinking at the time was that an interactive science museum (Science City) would draw huge crowds, more than a collection of the city's history would.
That led to a 2000 merger between the Union Station Assistance Corporation and the Kansas City Museum Association, creating Union Station Kansas City Inc. The combined organization's articles of incorporation do not reference the Kansas City Museum or Corinthian Hall; it reads more like the description of a real-estate development company than a museum entity.
Meanwhile, the city considered turning Corinthian Hall into the mayor's home or perhaps a conference center. However, the Kansas City Museum remained there.
Union Station's renovation lost money early on. Science City didn't attract nearly the number of paid visitors that were projected.
The focus on Union Station while Corinthian Hall — a building that needed $13 million in work — languished irked Northeast residents and revealed cracks in Union Station's relationship with Corinthian Hall.
Former Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Kay Barnes convened a task force to, among other things, figure out how to raise money to renovate Corinthian Hall. That led to the formation of the Kansas City Museum Advisory Board, a city-appointed group of volunteers that would oversee how the $1.4 million in annual property-tax revenues were spent and advise the city on upgrading Corinthian Hall.
The KCMAB didn't work well with Union Station, waging turf battles over Corinthian Hall's future. Union Station argued that it was doing what it could with Corinthian Hall, while the KCMAB believed that it was being neglected. The behind-the-scenes tensions became public in 2006 when former City Council member Deb Hermann discovered that Union Station had sought to trademark the phrase "Kansas City Museum."
Hermann introduced an ordinance instructing the city manager to secure the trademark for the city. The entire Kansas City, Missouri, City Council supported Hermann's idea, except for Barnes, who sided with Union Station.
The trademark dispute revealed another rift: Who owns the collection of Native American artifacts and other historical items in the Kansas City collection? Union Station argued that it owned everything except Corinthian Hall; Kansas City's lawyers disagreed.
In 2007, Kansas City and Union Station reworked the museum-management contract. The new, 20-year deal said Union Station owned or was a trustee of any artifacts received on and after October 5, 1970; Kansas City retained ownership of everything acquired before that date.
Even with that clear delineation, though, few agree on who owns what. According to a 2009 inventory, Union Station believes that it owns 90 percent of the collection; others interpret the results as more like 60 percent.
The new agreement still had the $1.4 million in property taxes for the museum going to Union Station, whose spending of the proceeds had been — and remains — a point of contention.
But the contract left a bizarre governance structure over the Kansas City Museum. It put a private entity (Union Station) in charge of a city-owned asset (Corinthian Hall) that was managed by a Union Station employee (Christopher Leitch), whose boss (George Guastello) determines how public funding (from the mill levy) is spent on the Kansas City Museum (which doesn't necessarily mean Corinthian Hall), which is overseen by a city-appointed board (KCMAB) that doesn't have any authority. It's little wonder that the arrangement hasn't worked.
George Guastello grew up in Columbus Park, not far from Corinthian Hall. The tall executive carries himself with the blunt, no-nonsense manner favored by civic leaders. Some KCMAB members find him condescending.
Guastello started his career in banking before moving on to marketing positions with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and Starlight Theatre. He later led the American Royal for five years before being hired to run Union Station in late 2008.
At the time, Union Station was hemorrhaging cash and depleting its endowment. Guastello has received much credit for quickly shoring up Union Station — and doing it his way.
"When you put George in a contentious position, he'll fight back," said City Council member Jan Marcason at a June 12 KCMAB meeting, according to the minutes. That meeting was held when discussions about separating the Kansas City Museum from Union Station were reaching a critical point.
Guastello wasn't at that June 12 meeting, but he was present October 14, the last time the KCMAB met. After that meeting, a Pitch reporter approached Guastello to discuss several issues related to Union Station and the Kansas City Museum. Fourth District City Councilman Jim Glover joined the conversation.
Days earlier, Glover had spoken with The Pitch for 90 minutes about Union Station, the Kansas City Museum and Corinthian Hall. One of the topics discussed was a significant mold outbreak, in 2011, in a storage facility that Union Station was using to house some of the Kansas City Museum's artifacts. Mold had covered exposed surfaces of artifacts placed in the Northland underground storage facility.
A mold-remediation report from 2011 indicates that cleaning mold off the collection cost $130,000. It also says Union Station leadership rejected recommendations to install equipment that may have prevented the mold problem. A separate report documents other instances when water pipes leaked in rooms where artifacts were stored.
Glover, who is a KCMAB member because his council district includes Corinthian Hall, was unaware of the mold outbreak. He asked Guastello about the matter after his conversation with The Pitch.
Guastello said October 14 that he would discuss the mold problem and other issues with The Pitch but has since put off numerous interview requests. He eventually responded in writing to only a few of the questions posed in a letter hand-delivered to his office in October.
With regard to Union Station's responsibility for the museum's artifacts, Guastello's written response to The Pitch says the station has built more than 35,000 square feet of storage space to manage and preserve the collection. He does not address specific questions about the mold outbreak.
Glover says the remediation of the mold issue is a feather in Union Station's cap. "That's a lot of artifacts to maintain," he tells The Pitch. "From what you said, that speaks in their favor. They found it out and cleaned it and resolved the problem."
To others, storage problems are nothing new.
"An issue like that did occur even before then, and this is back in the 2004, 2005 time frame," says City Councilman Scott Wagner, a longtime member of the KCMAB. "There were storage issues outside of Union Station, where some of the remote storage locations did not have good temperature control, did not have good humidity issues."
Leitch's firing isn't the only flashpoint drawing scrutiny to Union Station's relationship with the Kansas City Museum. The interminable delay of an audit of that relationship has stoked museum backers' suspicions.
On January 17, 2013, the City Council passed a resolution instructing the city's auditor to look into the museum's management agreement with Union Station. The city asked the auditor to examine how Union Station shares expenses with the Kansas City Museum, how it manages the museum's collection, and how the $1.4 million in annual mill-levy revenues is spent.
After the resolution passed, the City Auditor's Office interviewed people close to the museum. But the auditor's findings haven't been made public, and the presentation of a scope statement, explaining in greater detail what the audit will cover, has been delayed several times by the City Council.
City Auditor Douglas Jones, who has worked for the city since 1994, says he never encountered such a protracted delay in his time with the city. "This one is kind of an outlier," Jones tells The Pitch. "I can't recall that this has happened before."
The audit has been eagerly awaited by museum enthusiasts who suspect that Union Station spends mill-levy funds to pay its own bills.
Will Royster, a former member of the Friends of Kansas City Museum board and KCMAB, was interviewed by audit staff in March. He tells The Pitch: "They asked me a lot of things in general. Did I have any suspicions? Had I felt that anything was not aboveboard? If I felt anything was going on behind the scenes? I said, 'Yes, we've always suspected these kinds of things,' which gave rise to the museum advisory board in the first place and justified making it into a commission."
Royster says he has never received an exact accounting of mill-levy spending.
Wagner echoes that sentiment: "For me, it has always been a challenge to know. I think in the past, although recently it has gotten better, having a clear understanding of how the mill levy was budgeted has always been for me a little elusive."
The Pitch filed an open-records request with the city, to obtain actual mill-levy expenditures. Kansas City produced occasional budgets and income statements from its general services department but included no itemized expenditures.
One document shows mill-levy expenses shared between Union Station and the Kansas City Museum. These include human-resources costs, information technology, and marketing, as well as 10 percent of Guastello's annual salary. His base salary in 2011 was $215,903, but that year he received $292,475, counting bonuses, deferred compensation and benefits.
An exact accounting of how Union Station spends the mill-levy money remains unclear in the public record, pending the city's audit. Marcason says the audit's delay is due to ongoing negotiations on a new museum-management contract between the city and Union Station.
"We don't want it to be adversarial," Marcason says. "We want to look to the future. I know some of the neighbors are suspicious. If there was anything uncovered, we would look at what the issues were, we would have looked at that. The neighbors should be excited that the city is looking for Corinthian Hall to be a sustainable community asset."
But without an audit, how can anyone know how the money is being spent?
"From a good-stewardship standpoint, it makes sense to do regular audits," says Adam Schieber, a Northeast Kansas City resident who chairs the KCMAB's audit committee.
Since 2007, the Kansas City Museum had enjoyed about $10,000 in annual support from the Francis Family Foundation. Named for Parker B. Francis, who founded the Puritan-Bennett Co., the foundation is carried on today by his children.
In 2011, the foundation ended its support of the Kansas City Museum. One reason given was the national recession pinching the foundation's balance sheet. But the foundation did not look warmly upon Union Station's regard for the needs of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall.
In a letter to Leitch dated November 29, 2011, Francis Family Foundation executive director Jim Koeneman writes: "[N]egative comments included Union Station Board of Directors' lack of attention to the needs of Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall, especially advocacy on your behalf with the city regarding timing and completion of renovations."
Corinthian Hall needs $20 million to finish renovations that started in 2008. The initial work cost $10 million and was funded by the city, mostly through its Public Improvement Advisory Committee.
Other supporters, the kind with artifacts to donate to the museum's collection, have shied away from the Kansas City Museum because they're unsure who will end up using their donations and how they will be presented.
On June 10, the KCMAB Collections Committee discussed instances in which donors were reluctant to give to the museum because of confusion over ownership. Examples included photographs that depicted Kansas City in 1870; that collection was sent to the Jackson County Historical Society "rather than having it will into the hands of USKC [Union Station] and possibly be separated from Kansas City Museum in the future," according to minutes of that meeting.
Those same minutes describe how the Kansas City Police Historical Society was told its members could donate only to Union Station and that they would have no control over their artifacts and would not be able to display them at police facilities in the future.
Union Station's relationship with the Kansas City Museum has also complicated the institution's accreditation. The museum used to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, a distinction that helps with fundraising and grant proposals. The AAM rescinded that accreditation in 2007, citing Union Station's record of financial instability and the spending down of a $40 million endowment to support operations.
"Another concern is the need for maintenance, repair and renovation of the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall, and the resources to adequately maintain this historic facility and ensure collections stewardship there," the AAM letter reads.
Glover says accreditation is an unimportant designation held up by museum supporters as a means to criticize Union Station. Few museums, Glover says, are accredited. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is accredited; the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial and the Harry Truman Library and Museum are not.
Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the AAM, says a little more than 1,000 of the 17,500 museums in the United States are accredited.
Glover worries that museum supporters' criticism of Union Station puts Corinthian Hall's progress at risk.
"What I don't like seeing happen is people throwing stones at Union Station," he tells The Pitch. "It actually hurts our efforts in the community to raise funds for Corinthian Hall. Some of the people who are throwing these hand grenades are really throwing live mortars at Corinthian Hall. It's a small community, and we need to have everyone pointing in the right direction to fundraise for a public-private partnership."
The difference in the upkeep of Corinthian Hall and Union Station tells the story of an ineffective contractual relationship on its way out.
Union Station is nearly spotless. Once a lonely building that was good for testing echoes, it now bustles with people visiting, eating a meal at one of its restaurants, or working for institutions that have leased office space there, including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Corinthian Hall today looks more like a museum of plywood. Fences cordon off public access to areas ostensibly under renovation. Hard hats are worn in some spaces.
Kansas City and Union Station are negotiating a change to the 2007 management contract, which otherwise would last until 2027 (with Union Station's option to extend it for another decade). One of the leading proposals would extract Corinthian Hall from Union Station's management and put it under the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the American Jazz Museum, the Black Archives and the World War I Museum.
City Manager Troy Schulte tells The Pitch that the parks department, under director Mark McHenry, has a proven ability to raise funds from the civic community — funds that Corinthian Hall badly needs. The 2007 contract with Union Station does not put it in charge of funding major renovations for Corinthian Hall — that's the city's bailiwick.
But Union Station would still look after the collection's 70,000 items. Schulte says the city doesn't have the capacity to maintain and curate the collection, so Union Station would still be allocated some undefined portion of mill-levy money to carry out that responsibility.
Guastello won't directly comment on the negotiations. "We have a strong working relationship with the city," he writes to The Pitch.
The Union Station board of directors, filled with well-known business leaders and elected officials such as Bank of Blue Valley CEO Bob Regnier and Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn, has discussed the Kansas City Museum situation once since Leitch's firing, according to R. Crosby Kemper III, a board member and CEO of the Kansas City Public Library.
"My feeling expressed in the board meeting is Union Station as a station is a different kind of entity than a museum," Kemper says. "And though they do museumlike things and have good storage space, it doesn't make a lot of sense in the long run for Union Station, which is a presentation venue, to be a curator. The other side of that is the city has been a — how shall we say — an inconsistent curator itself."
Kemper adds that the question over who owns the collection — an unresolved matter likely to be a sticking point in the city's contract negotiations with Union Station — is silly. "Ultimately, from a city point of view and a civic point of view, it should be irrelevant who legally owns it," he says.
City officials believe that a new deal could be struck by the end of the year. Most sides seem to agree that the new contract shouldn't resemble the shotgun wedding that constituted the 2000 merger.
"In terms of the big picture, I don't think there is a whole lot to it other than supporters of the museum, patrons of the museum and the general public that pays for the museum and the ongoing renovations of the building want to see a successful Kansas City Museum," says KCMAB member Adam Schieber. "And that's what everyone is seeking. How do you get to that? What are the obstacles? One obstacle is a management group that isn't able to fully give their professional attention to that success. If it's broken right now and we can start at a zero point, that is the best way to move forward."