Frank Lloyd Wright architecture school at Taliesin looks to stay open

More than a month after the board overseeing the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin announced the school would close after 88 years of operation, the board has reversed its decision and plans to keep the school open. 

The school board announced the decision on Thursday. It remains unclear whether the foundation that oversees Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin properties in Scottsdale and Wisconsin will agree.

Aaron Betsky, president of the School of Architecture, said the decision to try to remain open comes as the school secured other funding sources. He did not specify a dollar amount.   

The earlier decision to close came as the school board and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which oversees Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin properties in Scottsdale and Wisconsin, couldn’t reach an agreement on the school’s future. 

More: Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture to close after 88 years in Arizona

Taliesin West was architect Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school in the desert from 1937 until his death in 1959 at the age of 91.

The foundation, which provides the school use of both of Wright’s properties, was willing to allow the school to continue operating there through 2021. However, the two sides could not agree on how the school should operate long-term.    

“We want to emphasize to the Foundation that we very much would like them to reconsider negotiating a new (agreement) with us so that we can find a way to continue a relationship with them,” Betsky said. 

A foundation official told USA TODAY Network’s Arizona Republic on Thursday that they had not seen a proposal from school officials. 

“The Foundation has no proposal from the School other than what it reads in the media. We therefore have nothing to respond to,” Jeff Goodman, the foundation’s spokesman, said. 

But Betsky said foundation CEO Stuart Graff was in attendance at the school board meeting where the decision to stay open was decided.

“All he had to say was ‘Okay, how do we move forward,'” Betsky said. “We made it clear to them that we wanted to move to mediation. We hope that they work with us.”

More: Fate of Phoenix Frank Lloyd Wright house uncertain after Taliesin donation falls through

Staying an accredited school

Tension between the school and the foundation has largely centered around whether the school should remain an accredited institution.

In 2014, the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based nonprofit that accredits universities and colleges, told the school it no longer met accreditation requirements. The commission decided it would no longer recognize schools that are part of larger institutions with missions beyond education, like the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Students and faculty at the school then successfully raised $2 million to fund operations, in order to earn their financial independence and avoid shutting down.

The school and the Foundation officially separated in 2017, after the Commission approved its accreditation, allowing the school to separate itself from the foundation and operate independently. 

But after the separation, the school was largely dependent on the $2 million raised to fund operations, according to an audited financial statement of the school provided by the foundation.

The start of independent operations for the school also led to limited financing options, and the school adopted a deficit budget going into 2019-2020.

Betsky said the school always knew it would have to rely on loans, particularly with the seasonal nature of operating the school on two campuses. 

The school has paid off every penny of the loans it has taken on since the separation, he said.

“We always knew from the very beginning that we would need to operate with loans, the same way the foundation does,” Betsky said.

New funding and more students possible

At a state board meeting last month, Graff read from a confidential email sent by Schweiker to the school board in January, just days before the board announced the closure.

In the email, Schweiker discussed the uphill battle of operating the school at its current size, saying that the overhead attached to accreditation was “an impossible task for a school of our size even if we were to grow to 60 students.”

“However painful it may be the truthful answer has always been the same,” Schweiker wrote. “We are too small to continue forward on our current path.”

But Schweiker pushed back after the meeting, saying that he had asked the foundation for a two-year extension of the current agreement with the school to evaluate what needed to be done to continue growing in the future.

This included looking at off-campus housing to accommodate more students on campus and lowering expenses by cutting food services that the school has typically provided to students.

The school may soon partner with Chinese architect Qingyun Ma, Betsky said. Ma is the former dean of the University of Southern California School of Architecture.

Ma would send six to 12 tuition-paying Chinese architecture students to attend the School of Architecture at Taliesin, according to Dan Schweiker, chair of the school’s board.

“It makes it a very profitable thing for us to do and really helps us to establish relationships with the architecture schools in China,” Schweiker said.

Approximately 25 students are currently enrolled at the Wright school. The students split their time between Scottsdale and Wisconsin.

Students at the school live together full-time, with half of the year spent at Taliesin in Wisconsin and the other half at Tailesin West in Scottsdale. Most live in shelters in the desert, all of them built by the architecture students who studied there before them.

Last week, students went public with a petition asking to keep the school open. The petition currently has almost 10,000 signatures.

Michael Simmons, a Taliesin student who will be graduating in May, said the news of the school’s postponed closure was unexpected. He called it good news that students needed to hear after a rough month.

But he said a gap of understanding still exists between the heads of the foundation and the heads of the school.

“I’m excited to know that the school board has taken seriously the will of the fellows and the community and the students,” Simmons said. “There’s a big gap to bridge, but collectively with the fellows, the school and the students all working toward keeping the school open, we have a much better shot.

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