National WWI Museum in K.C. finds success

Friday, December 26, 2008 | 11:32 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Despite some funding struggles, the National World War I Museum continues to record higher than expected attendance, attract dignitaries and politicians and garner positive reviews.

Now officials from the museum at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City are working to improve its business plan as they approach several national events in coming years.

A business plan four years ago projected 143,000 paying visitors the first year and 130,000 visitors each year following. But the museum actually drew 196,000 paying visitors in its first 13 months and is set to end this year at about 147,000.

"I think we're in a good place two years in," said Brian Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the Liberty Memorial Association. "We'd had a lot of notable successes."

The museum ends 2008 with about $925,000 in ticket sales.

High operating costs and a cutback in city funding would have caused the museum to lose money this year.

But the Kauffman Legacy Fund gave an unsolicited $1 million grant.

Half will be used to begin an endowment to generate interest income for museum operations.

Two additional endowment funds will be made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant that the memorial association is close to meeting. That will create a $1.8 million fund for education programs as well as a $200,000 fund for museum acquisitions.

While the endowments may grow over time, officials still depend on an annual $625,000 city subsidy that is scheduled to continue through 2014.

The museum association has hired the San Francisco firm of Museum Management Consultants to develop a strategic plan for the museum.

Two national network news programs have broadcast from the Liberty Memorial and many visitors continue to give the museum rave reviews.

Bob Lorenz, a visitor from Michigan, stopped by one recent afternoon on his way to Arkansas.

"This is a fantastic museum," Lorenz said. "I've seen quite a few museums here and in Europe, and this is every bit as good or better than anything I've seen."

The museum's VIP guests have included Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential candidate John McCain, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

President-elect Barack Obama's campaign used the Liberty Memorial for a large rally in October that also drew national attention.

The Liberty Memorial also is poised to raise its national profile.

It plans to host a remembrance ceremony once the last U.S. veteran of World War I — Frank Buckles, 107, of Charles Town, W.Va. — dies.

The museum also aspires to anchor the nation's observance of the centennial of World War I from 2014-2018.

Alexander said that role would provide an ideal vehicle to build up the memorial's operating endowment.

Legislation pending in the U.S. Senate would designate the Liberty Memorial as the nation's official World War I memorial. It already has been designated the nation's official museum about the war and is listed as a national historic landmark.

The Liberty Memorial Association is taking steps to boost its stature locally as well by adding to its board of trustees. It recently recruited H&R Block Inc. co-founder Henry Bloch, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Tom Hoenig, construction leader Bill Dunn Sr., Buffalo Funds CEO John Kornitzer and banking executive R. Crosby Kemper Jr.

"These are important members who have a certain kind of influence to help us move forward and who are well-known, in some cases nationally, and can provide an entry to help us contact individuals who might be interested in supporting the museum," Alexander said.


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