New director shakes up Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park

Layoffs, new website, downtown office all on table

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

It's only been two months since Celeste Adams took over as the new leader of the organization that oversees the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park. But already, she's leaving her mark on the local institution.

Since she arrived, the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has seen a shakeup that's resulted in the layoffs of five staff members, the creation of a new management position and the prospect of opening of a new office in Chicago.

Adams, 63, took the helm of the local tourist magnet from River Forester Joan Mercuri, who retired this past summer after 14 years on the job. Previously, she piloted the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan for 13 years, where she oversaw the construction of a $75 million museum and bolstered the organization's endowment from $1.3 million to $15.3 million.

To get up to speed, Adams has been meeting the owners of local Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, getting to know her organization's board, and has been attending soirees at local institutions such as Unity Temple and the Nineteenth Century Club, hoping to form partnerships with other leaders.

Late this summer, the trust laid off five of its staff members, two of whom were full time, bringing its total workforce there to about 50. Two of the positions were in marketing, two in archives and one in collections, according to Adams. The move wasn't about saving money or closing a budget gap, she said, but rather making the organization more lean and efficient.

None of those employees was dedicated to frontline services to visitors. The trust will perform the same work through better use of technology, outsourcing and reallocation of duties, Adams said

"We put more focus and energy on our visitors," Adams said in an interview Monday at her office. "Some departments had become very deep, and we felt that those areas could maintain energy and work very well with a slightly reduced workforce."

On the flipside, the trust has beefed up staff or moved bodies around to better focus on "engaging" its visitors. The trust has also created a new position, development director, to oversee its fundraising and grant writing. The trust hired Oak Parker Elizabeth Lekan, a former Home and Studio volunteer, for the position.

Other changes are also in the works, outside of staff rearrangement. The trust is looking at redesigning its website some time in 2011. And Adams says they want to retool their magazine, Wright Angles, to focus more on "engaging" interviews, with a version eventually appearing online for the first time.

The Home and Studio is in desperate need of a paint job, Adams said, something that hasn't been done in about 12 years. And they're planning to create a maintenance plan in the next year, and form a building and grounds committee to oversee the property.

"Oak Park is a house-proud community," Adams said. "Homes here are very well kept. Gardens and yards are beautifully trimmed, and we want the home and studio to be at that level or above it."

Rumors have floated that the trust is also considering opening a second office in Chicago. Adams deferred any comments on a new location to her board of directors.

James Schiefelbein, chairman of the board, said the organization has talked about a presence in Chicago for years. The idea was also suggested in the board's most recent strategic plan.

"We've long used the downtown area as a springboard to get people out to Oak Park," he said.

Schiefelbein emphasized that the new office, and other initiatives being undertaken, aren't the work of Adams alone. Her moves have all been supported by the entire board, and many of those initiatives were laid out in the trust's strategic plan, which was part of a process that started almost a year ago.

The trust also plans to do a survey in the near future to ask its visitors what they want to see from the organization.

"The great thing about being new is that you have fresh eyes and ears," Adams said. "You're not set in your ways, and that's what we want to do in the next year — listen to our audience and listen to people here in Oak Park about all the things they'd like the trust to do."

Reader Comments

2 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Craig from St Louis, MO  

Posted: October 6th, 2010 11:50 PM

It's about time! It seems all things FLW are tired and dusty. The future of these homes and the legacy of FLW will reside with "the youth of today".. My first vote, allow photos in the home!

Chris Hauri from River Forest  

Posted: October 6th, 2010 3:50 PM

As a longtime volunteer and former board member, I'm very excited to see fresh thinking come to the Home & Studio. Joan Mercuri had done an incredible job for a very long time. But it's refreshing to have someone at the top take a fresh look and have the ability to make changes. Ms. Adams seems to have a grand vision for continuing the tradition of excellence!

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