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Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school might stay open
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school might stay open

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Taliesin

Frank Lloyd Wright launched his architecture school in 1932, with apprentices splitting their time between Taliesin in Spring Green, above, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.

After a “gut-wrenching decision” in January to close the architecture school that Frank Lloyd Wright started 88 years ago, the school’s board says the institution might be able to stay open after all — though one of its main funders remains dubious.

The School of Architecture at Taliesin — which has campuses at two Wright properties, one in Spring Green and the other in Arizona — announced Jan. 28 it planned to close in June. But the school’s board of directors voted Thursday to reverse that course and keep the school open in light of new funding, according to a statement from the law firm representing the school.

The decision to remain open still needs approval from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, a separate entity that said it is skeptical of the school’s new funding and whether it will be sustainable. The foundation has said it is the largest financial supporter of the school.

In a Friday statement, the foundation said it “has little information about these new income sources and programs,” and the new funding needs to be vetted by the school’s accreditors, lawyers and its financial committee. Until that vetting is done, the foundation said, it won’t make any decisions.

New supporters came forward after the school announced its plan to close , and the school contends those backers will pave the way for its long-term viability, board chairman Dan Schweiker said.

“We’ve heard from architects all across this country, people out of China — just an outpouring of people that realize how important the legacy of what Frank Lloyd Wright teaches (is), and how unfortunate it would be if that went away,” Schweiker said.

Launched by Wright in 1932, the Taliesin school currently has 25 students who split time between Spring Green and the campus in Scottsdale, Arizona. Schweiker said that’s in part because the Wisconsin home isn’t winterized and in part because that’s how Wright envisioned the school.

Financial plan

Schweiker said there was enough money to support the school’s operations, but “the foundation didn’t think we had enough money to have a bright future.” A new partnership could provide that.

Qingyun Ma, an architect and professor affiliated with two universities in China, has committed to providing the school with six new students in August and up to 12 new students next year — bringing significant tuition revenue with it, Schweiker said. Ma is former dean of the architecture school at the University of Southern California.

The foundation was made aware of the option in January but was not interested, Schweiker said. But he said the plan has become more concrete.

Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the foundation, wrote in a Jan. 31 blog post that the school was focused on a “financially speculative program to try to save the School, offering hopeful dreams as an alternative to a concrete path to a sustainable future.”

Since then, alumni of the school have also pledged to raise money for it, Schweiker said, with a goal of $500,000 by the end of April. Current students also started a change.org petition to keep the school open, which has garnered 10,000 signatures.

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Schweiker said he hopes the public outcry of support for the school after the closure announcement will help bring the foundation back to the negotiating table. He views the alumni fundraiser and the China program as a “game changer.”

The blame game

The decision to close came after the school and foundation couldn’t come to an agreement on how to stay in operation. The two entities disagree over which is to blame for the January closure decision.

Kirkland & Ellis, the law firm representing the school pro bono, said in its statement that the board was forced to close the school because the foundation, which owns the properties where the school’s campuses are located, decided it would terminate the school’s lease on July 31.

Graff, however, wrote that the foundation wanted to keep the school open but that the school lacked a sustainable business model.

“From the moment it became independent, (the School of Architecture at Taliesin) built its budgets on aspirational but unrealistic projections for enrollment and fundraising that consistently weren’t met, leaving the School scrambling for operating and investment funds,” Graff wrote.

The boards of both the school and foundation had come up with a plan to keep the school going through the end of July 2021 to allow current students to finish their degrees. The foundation would have donated the use of the two Wright properties during that time. But the school’s board didn’t unanimously approve the plan.

Aron Meudt-Thering, spokeswoman for Taliesin Preservation, the nonprofit in charge of preserving the Wisconsin Wright property and hosting public education programming at the site, said the organization supports both the school and the foundation.

“We are supportive of both organizations because we’re partners with both entities,” Meudt-Thering said. “We hope that they work out their differences.”

Legacy ‘will continue’

The school is now asking the board to extend its existing lease agreement so it can remain open, Kirkland & Ellis said.

“The foundation is being resistant and still retains the power to force the school to close unless a deal is reached,” the firm said.

The foundation was critical of the proposal Friday, stating that the school’s “lack of planning” has “adversely affected the lives of its employees who were terminated, generated distraction for its students from their studies and future planning, upset its alumni community, and disrupted the Foundation’s own important work.”

Regardless of whether the school stays open, the foundation said it will continue to provide training for architects and design professionals at the two Taliesin properties. It said it’s looking at creating new accredited teaching programs at the sites.

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s 88-year-legacy of architect training will continue at his two homes,” the foundation said.

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