Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives Transferred from his Homes to NYC

Taliesen, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 1932. Drawing by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which owns and operates Taliesen and Taliesen West–the homes and studios last used by Frank Lloyd Wright–has transferred its architectural archives of papers, drawings, and models to the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  The collection includes more than 23,000 architectural drawings, about 40 large-scale, architectural models, some 44,000 photographs, 600 manuscripts and more than 300,000 pieces of office and personal correspondence. “The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation takes seriously its responsibility to serve the public good by ensuring the best possible conservation, accessibility, and impact of one of the most important and meaningful archives in the world,” said Sean Malone, CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. “Given the individual strengths, resources and abilities of the Foundation, MoMA and Columbia, it became clear that this collaborative stewardship is far and away the best way to guarantee the deepest impact, the highest level of conservation and the best public access.”

The decision to transfer the collections couldn’t have been easy for the Foundation–it’s a significant part of their identity with tremendous historical and cultural value.  Admitting you can’t care for a collection is difficult–but organizations should regularly ask themselves if they’re the only ones to do this work and if someone else can do it better.  It’s especially tough at historic sites and house museums–they typically have the most complex collections management issues of any museum. Not only are they caring for the mix of media and forms found in house furnishings (e.g., wooden tables, wool rugs, ceramic vases, metal pots, oil paintings) but also personal materials (e.g., clothing, toys, photos, letters, jewelry) and the buildings and landscape. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has been struggling for years with the preservation and maintenance of its two historic sites located in different parts of the country, and the managing the care and access for this significant archival collection only complicated matters. Malone admits that, “Without the need to build an archives facility in Scottsdale, money now can go toward restoring the buildings at Taliesin West and their contents.” They’re not alone.

To reduce some of this complexity and to improve care and access, some historic sites have transferred their archival collections (such as papers, books, photos) to libraries and archives, often with conditions that provide special access to the site (such as photographing or publishing collection materials without the usual license fees, expedited approval for loans, permission to handle the original materials).  Usually archival collections should stay as close to the site as possible to maintain a strong connection between the historical resources.  Some examples of transferred collections include:

The decision to transfer the collections certainly improves access by consolidating materials from two remote locations (Arizona and Wisconsin) and while MOMA and the Avery will be outstanding stewards and the collections fall squarely within their missions, it’s not entirely clear why the Foundation selected these institutions.  Perhaps there are no appropriate libraries in Arizona or Wisconsin, but then what would be the next reasonable choice?  Frank Lloyd Wright is most strongly associated with Illinois–that’s where he started his career and where most of his work can be seen (such as Robie House, Rookery, Dana Thomas House, and his Home and Studio). Indeed, Chicago has two institutions–the Art Institute and the Newberry Library–that could care for and manage these collections just as effectively. But when working with donors, placing a collection is not just about finding a good caretaker but also about association and prestige.  That seems to be the overriding issue here.  “At MoMA, Frank Lloyd Wright’s work will be in conversation with great modern artists and architects such as Picasso, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier,” said Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA. In a similar vein, Carole Ann Fabian, director of Columbia’s Avery Library, stated, “At Avery, Wright’s rich legacy of archival materials joins the great historic architects whose works are preserved here — from Sebastiano Serlio to Piranesi, and to other key 20th century American figures.”

The move isn’t without controversy. Paul Zygas, an architectural historian and Arizona State University professor, likened the archives transfer to “giving away the crown jewels” to two of the very things Wright despised: big cities and universities. On the other hand, Arizona architect Will Bruder claims that, “The Wright drawings are finally going to be protected and immediately accessed rather than remaining in the musky old closets of Taliesin West. They deserve to be under the ownership of the world.”

More details: