Photos and text (c) Mark Hertzberg
Sean Malone, the president and chief executive officer of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, will leave his position in February, after four years. He had been at least the sixth CEO in a decade when he began his tenure in 2012. His departure came as a surprise to outsiders.
Malone at the annual Wright birthday dinner at Taliesin, June 6, 2012
Malone and the Foundation said in a press release that the position requires someone at Taliesin West in Scottsdale full-time. Malone has been dividing his time between Scottsdale and his home near Milwaukee, and wants to stay in Wisconsin for family reasons. He told me in 2012 that he did not foresee problems operating from Milwaukee because he would be traveling widely raising money for the Foundation, something he could easily do from Milwaukee.
There are three parts to this retrospective: My photo history of Sean during his tenure, my April, 2012 profile of him, written as he began his stewardship of the Foundation, and then, after you read the profile, highlights of our conversation July 13, 2015 when I asked him to reflect on his stewardship of the Foundation. I chose to let his 2015 words speak for themselves, rather than interpret them. He used one phrase repeatedly during our conversation, that looking back at his stewardship was taking a view “from 30,000 feet.”
Malone tours the Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine, March 21, 2012 before our conversation which led to this profile of him when he began working at the Foundation:
The black Toyota Prius quietly rolls to a stop. Sean Malone, 42, steps out, a white straw hat on his head, an iPhone in his hand. Meet the new president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Malone, who comes from Ten Chimneys Foundation in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, breaks the mold of what many people may have expected in the new head of the Foundation.
Architect? No. Professor of architecture of art history? No. Seen many Wright buildings before taking the position? No. Steeped in years of Frank Lloyd Wright? No. Lives at or near Taliesin? No. Lives at or near Taliesin West? No.
Bright? Yes. Affable? Yes. Thoughtful? Yes. Articulate? Yes. Successful record with Ten Chimneys? Yes. Enthusiastic about his new job? Yes. Confident that he is the right person to help the Foundation overcome its challenges and negative publicity? Yes.
It is clear why T-West would want Malone: he has a stellar record as a director of a non-profit organization. On the other hand, one might wonder why someone with no traditional background in the World of Wright would want to step into what has been somewhat of a revolving door at Taliesin West.
Malone tours Wright’s American System-Built homes on W. Burnham Street in Milwaukee with Robert Hartmann, then-president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin and board member Ron Scherubel April 18, 2012:
Malone talks about his interest in Wright, “I have always been moved by his body of work. Because I am not an architect, I was not in a position that I could explain what it was that moved me. I found it invigorating. It’s just beautiful, balanced, intentional work, and so I started from a point of engagement with his art. The other piece that really excited me and brought me into the organization was the potential for the body of work and the philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright to inspire me.”
Malone’s tour of the Grant House in Iowa during the 2012 Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy tour is interrupted by a phone call:
There is much more substance to his vision about his new role than what some may fancy for him. His responsibilities are more than overseeing the preservation of Taliesin and Taliesin West, overseeing the Foundation’s architecture school, and racking in big bucks in donations, grants, and souvenir sales to fund the whole kit and caboodle.
Malone says that the Foundation’s “biggest challenge” is “to decide what the next decade or two will be about.” That is not a particularly startling answer. What is more interesting is the next series of questions he poses, and the way he answers those questions.
Malone welcomes conferees to Taliesin West October 29, 2014 during the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy annual conference:
First, he asks, “Who do we exist to serve? That is a loaded question. It underlines my opinion that we exist to serve…it is something I believe all non-profits should do. That is what attracted me to the Foundation.
“Who do we serve directly? People who visit the two national landmarks we own, our publications…but also the people we exist to serve through indirect means. If we are inspiring people who are professionals who are part of the built environment, more than just architecture, our ability to inspire them, is not just about them, it is about what they then go and do.
“I am a real believer in both direct impact and indirect impact. Directly, I want to inspire architects and student architects, all people involved with the built environment (including writers, photographers, and city planners). All of them, if we inspire them, change peoples’ lives. If you take a look at the direct and indirect impact (of the Foundation on people), it’s global.
Then Malone asks, “What are the deep meaningful needs of those individuals and communities? Once we define who we exist to serve, what are their needs? Sometimes it is things they do not know they want yet. It is about needs, not wants. It has to be (something) unmet. If someone is doing it adequately, I don’t want to do it.”
Finally, Malone says he want to know, “Which of those needs do we agree we are uniquely positioned to meet, better than anyone in the world or that no one in the world can do at all?”
Asking those questions, having “conversations” with people, is key to Malone’s approach to his new position. “That is the lens through which I look at the role of a non-profit. I don’t think that articulation is completely new or earth-shattering.”
While most non-profits might end up with a list of only two or three challenges that answer those questions, Malone has no illusion that there will not be many “opportunities” that the Foundation could take on. He has no doubt that there could be a daunting list of goals that some may offer as priorities. Malone wants to pare such a list down. “What is particularly exciting for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation…that is a big part of why I wanted to make this move and a big part of why I am so energized about the work that we are going to accomplish in the coming years.
Malone asks more questions. “Why do you think of his body of work and philosophies? Why do you think it is going to be relevant ten years from now. Why do you think it is going to be relevant a hundred years from now. Those are the questions I am asking people.”
He has a degree in business from the University of Wisconsin, but Malone sees his work as being more than just a dollars-and-cents guy charged with keeping the troubled Foundation solvent. “The idea of how we live our lives has been an important part of my career, because I think it matters. i think people find it relevant, and that we as humans have the opportunity to make that a decision…I think his (Wright’s) work has something very meaningful to say about our ability to choose the life we are going to live, to live an intentionally lived life, and that is a powerful thing. That is one of the handful of truly universal challenges…the sense that we don’t have to choose between being great one thing or another. We don’t have to choose between deep relationships with family and friends and connections with the nature around us. You can live an integrated life.”
Malone believes that one must do more than just read the plethora of biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright to understand him. One has to experience his work. “To get a sense of the universal truths, you don’t read a biography of Shakespeare, you read Shakespeare, and that is what draws me to the body of work of Frank Lloyd Wright. That is his legacy.”
It is surprising to some that Malone continues to live in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, rather than move to Scottsdale or even to Spring Green. “I think that it is reflective of an organization that is no longer Arizona-centric.” He has full confidence in the people who oversee Taliesin and Taliesin West, without feeling the need to be on site full-time.
“My job is to make sure that both are able to be successful in their day-to-day operations, both in public programs, like the tours, and in education, like the school of architecture, but the mission of the organization is, at the very least, national, so I think it makes sense that the CEO isn’t the on-site person at either place. We have very talented staff members. We didn’t need another COO in Scottsdale.”
He spends a bit more than half his time traveling. He anticipates that he will be traveling less frequently to Taliesin West as time goes on, instead traveling more across the country to raise money for the Foundation, “Great things cost money, part of my job is to connect people with those activities. It’s the donors who make it really happen. It’s my job to steward that investment. It’s my job to make sure their donation is well spent and makes an impact.”
Malone finishes the interview with a reminder of who he believes the Foundation must not lose sight of, “We exist to serve, and only succeed because of the public.” Some people will certainly deem Sean Malone’s tenure a success if he retains his position – he is at least the sixth CEO in a decade. Others will consider his tenure a success if the Foundation’s finances are stabilized. Malone himself has a broader goal. He drives a Prius. It is reasonable to think that he will be satisfied only with results that will be harder to measure: that he is able to bring stability to the Foundation so that Wright’s work can continue to influence people to live Wright’s architecture, to better their lives and their communities.
Malone Reflects On His Stewardship, July 13, 2015:
A collaborative effort: I am extremely proud of what the Foundation has accomplished in this time. It’s the Foundation that has accomplished it. All great things happen because groups of civic volunteers and advocates get together and make it happen.
The very significant increase in contributions comes from people coming together with clarity about the mission. This is something that is very exciting to me. I hope everybody connected with the Foundation is proud of it. It is something in which I take great pride.
I asked him if there was anything he feels has been left undone: I don’t look at it that way.
This organization has grown in capacity and reach, and the number and quality of its advocates to be able to continue moving forward. What’s exciting when you look at it from 30,000 feet, the organization is going in a great direction in multiple fronts, in every aspect of what its supposed to do.
On the “uncertainty” about the future of the School of Architecture: I feel like we have multiple constituencies working together …
On the preservation of both Taliesin and Taliesin West: We just competed the first ever in-depth comprehensive preservation master plan that talks about what needs to be restored, at what level, and why. That’s not easy…Sixteen months of impressive research (about Taliesin West) thoughtfully put together…the cornerstone is done and that’s very exciting. Similarly good, last year we spend three times as much on the preservation of the two Taliesins as the year before I came. We went from about $1million to $3 million, and that’s not because the needs went up, but because there was a real investment in making this happen. That’s the 30,000 foot view of preservation. This organization embracing its responsibility to preserve the two Taliesins for generations to come.
On the sale of the archives to the Avery Library and to the Museum of Modern Art: That collaboration has been extraordinarily successful. We are already seeing everything affiliated with those archives taking the next step in terms of the preservation of those archives, the access to scholars, the quality of digital capture and in terms of public access, not just scholarly access. There was a remarkably well received exhibit at MOMA in 2014 and in 2017 there will be a very large exhibition as part of a celebration of Wright’s sesquicentennial; that’s another bright spot.
On public tours of Taliesin West: We’ve really overhauled and significantly increased visitor satisfaction of that tour, reducing tour size, continuing education with docents, and the opportunity to purchase tickets in advance (Before) you would come and sit and hope you got in eventually. Now 50-90% of tours are purchased in advance, depending on the week.
We are also in the process of doing a comprehensive evaluation of the tours and interpretive planning projects. What people expect and what they are going away with. What is it we want people to take away with them?
If you have 100,000 people touring, it’s not having a cash cow, but an obligation, an opportunity to inspire. How are we connecting this experience to peoples’ lives?
Programmatically, those are the bright spots from 30,000 feet.
The organization: Then there is the capacity, the institutional side of things. I am proud of the board, staff, and donors about the evolution of the Foundation as an increasingly world class non-profit.
It was a family business when it started…the Fellowship, him and his wife. It had its era, but the organization is really focused on what is its impact. It is focused on being a professional. organization, that we have the discipline to make sure that when donors contribute that their philanthropic investment yields the best public impact.
In Arizona it is rewarding to see the development of the Taliesin Board of Stewards, local leaders embracing the critical importance and impact of Taliesin West in a way that we’ve never had that community engagement. That’s certainly important in terms of contributions and support, but it’s also the best opportunity for us to make sure we are serving our community. Having this group of Arizona leaders talk to us about the needs of tourism and residents, and connecting this international icon to an understanding of what Phoenix and the Greater Valley community is…It’s very much a symbiotic relationship. We can’t accomplish what they point us toward without support.
He is excited about the solar energy at Taliesin West, but does not take credit for it: The ball started before I came in.
On fund raising: We are changing the philosophy of the gifts program, making sure we are interacting with donors the way they want to be interacted with. Donors don’t want perks, they believe in the organization in which (they are investing). Instead of you get this many mugs, tickets, t-shirts…it’s all about engagement…here are ways for you to have more insider opportunities…not us taking a chunk of the money you gave and giving you trinkets. We have had an increase in people giving and in the average. gift size. We nearly tripled annual giving. That is really powerful and really rewarding. I certainly believe that is not about me, that is about the importance of this organization and the mission. Nobody gives to something they don’t believe in. I am very proud of the increased level of giving. It speaks to the promising future of the organization. Our preservation needs are significant. There is more work to do, it is critical work…it is exciting work and rewarding work.
In closing: I will continue to be a huge advocate for and fan of this organization, and working toward its success.