Op-Ed: Final Thoughts on the Former FLWVM Closure

Well, I had thought this issue was laid to rest, and we were all moving forward. However, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (FLWF) has fired off a form letter response to all of those wonderful people who wrote in the former Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum’s support, and it has led to some confusion – and conclusions – which many (including my editor) feel need clarification.

However, before I continue, I must disclose that I am no longer on the Virtual Museums, Inc. (VMI), Board of Directors. My departure, which I announced on my own blog, was for three main reasons:

  1. Most of all, I simply do not have the time that I would like to commit to this endeavor, between RL and SL commitments;
  2. As many of my regular readers will know, I am committed to supporting visual culture of all kinds, and have long been considering new ventures which are not solely focused on architecture and historical reproduction (much as I love both); and
  3. I have felt, especially lately, that my serving VMI has been very tricky to balance with my journalistic pursuits here at Prim Perfect. I feel that I should be reporting on things which I have been unable to do freely, for ethical reasons, although both organizations have been extremely professional and supportive about this.

My decision in no way reflects my feelings about VMI, or my faith that they will continue on to do wonderful things, and I shall be a vocal supporter of them. However, I am glad that I know feel free to give comment and opinion on my own experiences with this issue without worrying that I am the voice of the organization. The views here are none other than my own.

I would like to begin by repeating what I have said elsewhere: I think the Foundation was acting in what they saw as the best interest of FLW intellectual property, and I think all of this is the circumstance of a very unfortunate communication breakdown. But I’d like to use this space to directly address the two issues that the Foundation response raises (and discloses): the quality of the builds not being to their standard, and supposed refusal of their new licensing fees.

One of my own concerns (and I know I was not alone in this) was the amount of power the original Licensing Agreeement (LA) gave to the Foundation, in terms of requiring their approval for so much of what the Museum did. I understand why it was there – as it is their responsibility to protect the name of Wright, they needed to see that we weren’t a bunch of amateurish builders creating anything and calling it ‘Wright’ (and we know builders like that are out there).  However, part of the initial LA process was, in fact, that the Assistant Director of the FLWF Archives came in-world to review the builds, and was by all accounts very impressed with what the former FLWVM had accomplished. These same builds were, as the Board and Staff understood it, grandfathered in to the LA, and were the only FLW replicas ever allowed on the sim.

That said, this approval process would not perhaps have been a problem if the Foundation responded to requests in a timely manner, which was always an issue. That, in combination with the feeling that the Museum should not have to seek approval for exhibits and builds which did not fall under the Foundation copyright, and were fair use (such as displays on the life of Wright which only used copyright free or approved images; or structures built in the Prairie Style from a recent Build-off), made the Board feel that the original agreement was not suitable, and wish to negotiate new, appropriate terms (the LA seemed to be designed for merchandise, not education – see the recent Designing Worlds interview for more on this, and as well you can see from their website that their focus is product licensing).

So everyone was understandably very excited when, after a change in our leadership and our receiving formal notification of our 501(C)3 status, Co-Director Ethos Erlanger (the co-builder of Fallingwater and the official liaison with the FLWF) received a letter from the Foundation inviting him to meet with them at Taliesin West! The Board felt it was a sign that they were finally taking the Museum seriously – something that hadn’t been certain thus far. Again, it is understandable – we all know the element of mystery, and even poor reputation, Second Life can have to those not involved. Everyone was looking forward to showing them our work first hand as well as discuss the enormous potential for art education that was at the heart of the Museum mission, and which so many other esteemed academic institutions (such as the University of Western Australia, the University of Texas, and the University College London) have embraced.

Erlanger traveled to Taliesin West at his own personal expense, with some support from his Co-Director, Rosalie Oldrich. It was a very positive trip, in which he met with several staff, and was able to login SL (albeit on a computer that struggled to render everything) and show them how things worked, and what the museum did. All the comments were positive. According to Erlanger, the only critical comments of any form were made in the course of conversation, and seemed more with a view of how the Foundation may be of assistance. For example, they noted a stained glass pattern that had been used as a runner because we had no authentic carpet textures; they indicated that they could help with that. These kinds of discussions, as well as their team saying that they would like to pursue building replicas of Taliesin East and West (the very heart of the Wright world!), and provide improved samples for Fallingwater textures and assistance with the guest house, left Erlanger feeling enthusiastic and he returned bursting with ideas.

From the form letter:

The Foundation terminated the license agreement with VMI for numerous reasons, including the fact that several of the buildings as constructed in Second Life and displayed by VMI did not accurately reflect the buildings as actually designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Cease & Desist order was the first notice the Museum had of any true dissatisfaction with their builds, and as you can see, their impression had been that the FLWF was happy with their work, and that they wanted to work with the Museum into the future. If the FLWF had communicated any issues prior to this, the Museum would have removed the offending build immediately and worked with them to make the improvements required. It is truly unfortunate that they were not given this opportunity.

One other important discussion happened very briefly while Erlanger was at Taliesin West. The LA came up, and the FLWF felt a new one needed to be drawn up in light of the recent leadership changes. This new LA included fees which, while reduced from their normal charges, were significant (thousands of dollars). Let me be clear – there was no new written LA presented, nothing offered to Erlanger to sign. It was all discussion at that point. Erlanger of course could not agree to these terms at that moment – not only was it not a formal request, but he could not have agreed to anything without Board approval.

When he returned from Taliesin West, Erlanger wished to write a Press Release discussing the successful trip; however the Foundation insisted they approve of it. He sent it to them as a courtesy – for the Museum was not required to have press approved. And waited. And waited. And never heard anything from them. Meanwhile, requests by Erlanger to discuss the current LA were also put off.

From the Museum side, not only did they have to consider whether they could come up with the extra couple thousand dollars for the FLWF, but they faced a new dilemma: Linden Labs’ new policies on education and non-profit discount, which came into affect mere days after they finally received non-profit status. Suddenly they also had to come up with 6 months of tier to gain the benefit. A large fee to the Foundation was of course something they hoped to negotiate.

The Foundation further offered a new and revised license agreement to VMI’s new board and management but it was declined.

While Erlanger expressed that the FLWF fee would be difficult, and asked to negotiate the current LA, the VMI never said no. How could they? They were never actually sent a new agreement to even consider, let alone refuse. And all the while, the Museum Staff and Board thought they were still in discussion with the FLWF, waiting patiently for responses from them just as they had waited patiently for project approvals and research requests.

I do not know why this happened. Perhaps somewhere along the way someone didn’t like what the former FLWVM was doing, or didn’t get it. Perhaps they assumed their offer was declined simply because the Museum said they weren’t sure they could afford it (although there was discussion still of possibilities for making it happen). I’m not entirely clear why the termination of the LA was deemed necessary before the museum was given the opportunity to fix the errors the Foundation saw, or even to properly respond to a new written offer. The Museum was not profiting on Wright’s name, nor doing anything other than educating about his life and work in a very positive way. Which brings me to the last part of this response I’d like to address – or rather query:

It was the Foundation’s hope and intention that a virtual museum would be a positive and educational undertaking to allow architects, scholars, students, and a younger generation to be able to learn about the many aspects of Wright’s architecture.

Well, that was the museum’s hope and intention too, and clearly – from the response there has been since the announcement that the Museum was closing – they were succeeding. By what method and criteria did the FLWF determine they were doing otherwise?

3 comments

    1. Thanks, Lydia, I knew that and made the mistake while unfortunately focusing on the topic at hand. I’ll make that edit and post your comment as well since it was important to you.

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