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WisBiz In Depth: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

By Gregg Hoffmann

SPRING GREEN - Tours have begun at Taliesin and operations should remain normal for the summer, despite problems with the foundation that oversees the former Frank Lloyd Wright home and architectural school.

Taliesin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, draw more than 150,000 visitors a year. Both are national historic landmarks.

But, internal and external difficulties of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the group that governs and runs both facilities, have been well-documented in recent months.

The Arizona Republic reported in March that the foundation needs $100 million, and has started an emergency fund raising effort, even though it has managed to raise only $2 million in the last two years.

In addition to the financial woes, the foundation has been racked by legal and organizational wrangling. The Republic quoted foundation vice-president Beverly Hart as saying, “We are an organization in chaos.”

Despite these difficulties, Craig Jacobson, public access manager for Taliesin, said, “It’s business as usual (at Taliesin). Tours have been going on since April.”

Jacobson explained that his organization, Taliesin Preservation Inc., raises money through tours, retail sales and fund raising and is not directly tied to the foundation.

“We were started as a commission by Tommy Thompson to work on preservation and restoration of the buildings,” Jacobson said. “To some degree, what has been happening (with the foundation) is on the side for us.”

Since 1991, TPI has raised about $16 million, which has been used for needed infrastructure work at the Spring Green facility. TPI has eight fulltime staffers and an annual budget of about $1.9 million, which comes primarily from those sources mentioned by Jacobson.

Still, TPI works with the foundation, and the difficulties with the latter group have raised questions about the long term future of the Wright facilities and the genius architect’s legacy.

Two chief executives and a licensing director have come and gone at the foundation since last April. The dean and much of the faculty at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture have left. Enrollment at the school stands at 11, down from 23 a year ago.

Sanctions Considered

The Higher Learning Commission recently considered sanctions against the Wright school. "Sanctions are a major public warning that means a school has to get its problems taken care of," said Steven Crow, director of the commission, which accredits 1,000 colleges in 19 states.

Sanctions go to schools that fail to meet or take actions that threaten their ability to meet accreditation standards. About a half-dozen schools are currently sanctioned by the commission.

School officials said that they already have put remedial programs in place and voiced hopes that their participation in a new national organization for independent architecture schools will help bridge the gap.

The issue moves next to the Higher Learning Commission board, which will make the final call on the sanction and other recommendations June 3. A sanction would make clear demands to be fulfilled during the 2006-2007 school year.

The focus for improvement, according to Crow, is on faculty, enrollment and the general curriculum. He refused to provide details until the commission's board has made a final decision.

Annual upkeep for the Wisconsin and Arizona campuses costs about $1.5 million, according to The Republic series. About $60 million in updating at Spring Green is needed. Work also is needed at the Arizona facility.

These costs stack up against the $4.8 million the foundation grossed in 2004 through tourism, licensing revenue and bookstore sales.

The makeup of the foundation board also has raised concern. Several of the board members are members of a fellowship who live and work at Taliesin. This could violate foundation bylaws and threaten the organization’s tax-exempt status.

Those fellowship members also once did much of the work at the two campuses, but they are aging. Much of the work now is done by the paid staff of TPI.

Fellowship Battle

Vernon Swaback, chairman of the foundation board, and some non-profit experts say that new blood is needed on the board. But, the fellowship that controls the foundation has fought back, circulating a letter a few weeks ago that slammed the foundation’s management and rejects a proposed to eliminate the fellowship’s veto power over board decisions.

“It should be the chairman’s ultimate responsibility to protect and speak well of the accomplishments of the foundation,” states the letter. “We the Senior Fellowship, as stewards of the Foundation, responsible for its continuity, decline to give up our rights.”

Financial problems at the two Taliesin campuses are not new. The Spring Green facility had deteriorated rather badly a few years ago. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put it on its “11 Most Endangered Places” list in 1999.

Even during Wright’s life, financial and other controversies often dogged him. Even those who considered Wright a genius as an architect admitted he sometimes was a “deadbeat” in not paying his bills.

Wright also endured controversies in his personal life and for his political beliefs. Despite this, Wright’s work gained stature. Since his death, he has reached legendary status.

So, some longtime followers of Wright’s story might say, “what’s new?” But, the current difficulties seem dire.

Nobody in The Republic series, or sources contacted by this writer, said the Spring Green or Scottsdale facilities are in jeopardy of closing their doors this year. Swaback said recently, “We are so close to destroying ourselves.”

Over the years, some have advocated for state takeover of Taliesin, but foundation members have resisted that idea. State budget restraints also would seem to make that infeasible at this time.

Some affiliated with the UWM School of Architecture have said that university program, the only of its kind in the state, should link with the Wright school. Again, that seems infeasible for similar reasons to the state takeover problem.

Jacobson emphasized that these difficulties will not affect this year’s tour season. Tours are available every day of the week from May 1 to Oct.1, although some specific tours run on certain days only.

Two fundraisers also are planned in June. Edgar Tafel, a former Wright apprentice, will hold a book signing on June 5. Eric Lloyd Wright, Frank’s grandson, will speak about “Organic Architecture” and host a dinner on June 30. Interested persons can call 877-588-7900.


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