Wright Trust 'in stage of surviving' says chief after 13 layoffs

Home & Studio hopes to reopen partially in June

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

On May 21, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust laid off 13 employees, 25 percent of its workforce.  Celeste Adams, Trust president and CEO, said the layoffs are directly tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We have been hard hit for an extended period of time. If you had told me in March, I would not have believed that we would be closed until June. The situation has evolved."

The Trust initially furloughed employees in March, with the hopes that those employees could return. Since that time, Adams said a small crisis team has worked reduced hours for reduced pay to try to raise needed funds to support the Trust. She said as it became clear that the immediate future of the Trust had changed, it was clear that cuts had to be made.

Adams characterized the lay offs as very difficult. "Our organization has always had a family spirit. Our offices are in a house, and we function as a family," she said.

A laid-off employee who requested anonymity said that family spirit made the lay-offs hard, particularly when some employees were fired via email. "One of the most difficult pieces was that this was not just a job. It was something I was passionate about. My co-workers and the volunteers are all so passionate about architecture and preservation.

"On the flip-side," the person said, "I see the potential difficulty for the Trust to rebound and see how truly difficult the financial situation must be for them to have to do this."

Adams said of the lay-offs, "They are across the board from senior level to staff. We did not eliminate a department."

The laid-off employee said though that the eliminated positions don't necessarily reflect a thoughtful response to the pandemic. "Certain positions make sense with the changing environment for the next year. But there are some that have us all scratching our heads. We're asking will they be able to make it through with volunteers stepping up and a skeletal staff?"

The former employee said, "We get it. If there's no money, there's no money, but the question is: Did they really make the best-informed decisions to provide the framework to keep things going? Some people essential to the everyday are no longer there."

"Many of us are feeling that leadership will try to create a narrative of this being COVID-related, but some of us see it as the Trust being unprepared for a long time for an unusual event. We should have been better prepared," the person said.

A second employee who was laid off and also asked to remain anonymous questions the financial stability of the Trust. "We're not coming from a place where we're disgruntled about the effects of COVID. In my opinion, the issues go back to last summer, when the Trust had trouble making payroll," the source said. "Having a presence and renting at the Rookery (a historic downtown office building) is expensive, and that would have been a good place to make cuts."

The second former employee said the Trust's failed proposal for a Visitor's Center on Chicago Avenue is evidence that the Trust is tone-deaf to the community and isn't thinking clearly about finances. "There was the Visitor's Center and the grand plans last year, but not having the funds to back that up is such contradictory information and behavior."

Kurt Neumann, the Trust's board treasurer, said the board worked with Adams to make the difficult decision about the layoffs. "These are obviously not the type of decisions we want to be making. They are very challenging due to the impact they have on people who make up the Trust."

He said the layoffs were unavoidable given the timing of the pandemic. "Summer is the busiest season for tourism, so this is a devastating time for this to happen. When you're a revenue-based institution and the revenues stop because you have to shut the doors, you have to make changes," said Neumann. 

Both Adams and Neumann say that while donations to the Trust and a federal Payroll Protection Program loan provided some short-term relief, they were not enough to keep operations running as normal when all of the Trust's sites and gift shops are closed for business. 

In addition, after postponing Wright Plus twice, the Trust recently announced that Wright Plus will not take place during 2020 and will instead return in the spring of 2021. Neumann calls the housewalk the Trust's largest fundraiser and says its loss had a huge impact on the finances of the Trust.

As the Trust grapples with changing circumstances, Adams praises donors, the homeowners who have agreed to have their homes featured on the delayed Wright Plus in 2021, and Trust volunteers. Noting that the Trust could no longer afford the lawn care services for their sites, she says that a volunteer mowed the grass at the Home and Studio when it got too high. "There have been so many acts of kindness," she said.

Adams is hopeful the Trust's sites, including the Home and Studio, can open in some capacity in June. She says the Trust desperately needs the revenue of the tours and gift shops, and they are making inquiries about how they can resume small tours of eight to 10 guests in the future, as well as offering recorded tours for visitors to take on their own outside.

"We are still very much in a stage of surviving. Perhaps recovery will take a year or more. It's very difficult for everyone involved. It's a sad moment for everyone, but we had to face the facts of the situation," said Adams.

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