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RIBA-USA damns Portland Place’s second US body as ‘waste of money’

Discord after RIBA offices sign memorandum of understanding

A major row has broken out between the RIBA in London and its US branch, just weeks after they signed an agreement cementing their relationship.

The president of the RIBA-USA board of trustees Jonathan Wimpenny described the RIBA’s decision to create a second charity in the USA, to be called the American Friends of the RIBA, as ‘a ridiculous waste of money’.

The new body, approved at a RIBA board meeting earlier this month, is aimed at raising funds for the institute’s collections at the British Architectural Library.

Wimpenny said the move went against the spirit of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the institute and his body in late July.

RIBA-USA was set up in 1996, but only formally became part of the RIBA network on the signing of the MoU last month. All money it receives in donations is spent on activities within the US.

Wimpenny said: ‘We signed an MoU with the RIBA to make sure we were working on the same path. If the RIBA wants to set up another charity in the USA, that is a ridiculous waste of money. It would be confusing to the donors if there were two separate charities.’

‘It would be contrary to the MoU,’ he added. ‘The MoU was signed and I presumed it would preclude working with others [in the USA].’

Wimpenny intends to seek clarification from the RIBA on a visit to the UK in August.

‘I am coming to England and will be talking about this then because I disagree with the notion, and do not understand it at all.’

Raj Barr, chair of the Washington DC chapter of RIBA-USA and a former president of the American Institute of Architects, also criticised the plan.

Barr wrote in a letter to Wimpenny seen by the AJ: ‘We undertake all manner of events in the USA with the express intent of building up RIBA presence and reputation in the US.’

‘We proudly fly the RIBA flag in the USA, and all glory accrues to the RIBA. A parallel organisation is not needed and it will only confuse donors.’

The RIBA confirmed that the move had been approved.

A spokeswoman said: ‘The RIBA is home to the British Architectural Library, one of the world’s largest, most comprehensive resources for research and information on all aspects of architecture.

‘The American Friends of the RIBA scheme will specifically help raise funds for the RIBA’s collections at the British Architectural Library, in compliance with US tax law.’

She added that RIBA-USA was officially recognised as a RIBA chapter and benefitted from use of its knowledge base, research, programmes and collections. When signing the MoU, RIBA president Angela Brady said: ‘This is an exciting opportunity to further develop RIBA membership in the USA and advance the RIBA’s purpose of championing better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture and our members.’

Readers' comments (3)

  • This is a mess. When the RIBA finances are "tight" and that it seems to me is an understatement, spending money on setting up a parallel fund raising body in the USA without I understand even discussing the possibilities with the existing RIBA/US organisation cannot be sensible. It will be interesting to know how this came about, did the RIBA Board agree to exploring the concept of a new fund raising body were they aware of existence of the existing RIBA/US body? Did they agree the cost of the exercise? When they agreed to the new body were the Board aware of the problems it had created with this existing RIBA/US body?
    In addition to all that as a Council member I knew nothing of all this and Council were never advised or consulted on firstly what was proposed and secondly that should be approved. This is another example where the RIBA Council elected by the membership to be responsible for such important policy and financial decisions are not only excluded from the decision process but are not even aware as a Council what is being proposed. That situation must be rectified. Owen Luder PPRIBA. Nationally elected Council member.

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  • Yasmin Shariff

    We need all the friends we can get but not by snubbing existing members. Setting up the RIBA-USA required great energy and enthusiasm. It is a great shame that a row has broken out at a time when we desperately need to work hard to raise the profile of members and the institute. Members are the life blood of the RIBA and I hope that the new Council will resolve any differences so that the enthusiasm and energy of members is harnessed and not frustrated. Members here and abroad should feel that the RIBA will facilitate and support any initiative relevant to their context and not be an impediment.

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  • Philip Allsopp

    During my four-year tenure as President and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (FLWF) and as President of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, I had to deal with the debilitating presence of competing Frank Lloyd Wright named charities. Many of these engaged in egregious violations of FLWF copyrights and trademarks, claiming falsely to be the true organization that Wright founded - which he most certainly did not. This situation meant that fund-raising for the FLWF was extremely difficult, not least because donors had a very hard time indeed understanding why there would be, for example, a "Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust" - created in Chicago around his home and studio historic house in Oak Park, and the "Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation", which was and remains the only entity that Wright himself created to preserve his works.

    Harry Rich's idea of setting up a competing entity (now apparently ratified by the RIBA Board) is naive in the extreme and will create great confusion among potential US donors as to which entity is the "real" entity worthy of their support. The last thing donors want is to have their money "managed" by one entity. which takes a percentage off the top, and then sends a portion of their donation on to the entity the donors actually thought their money was supporting.

    Collectively, the RIBA-USA Region has deep and enduring personal and professional connections in the United States born out of many decades of RIBA-USA members living and working here. Harry Rich's adventure in the United States to set up an organization intended to funnel money from US donors to the United Kingdom will most likely compromise extant RIBA-USA relationships. Just as I saw with the numerous "Frank Lloyd Wright" named organizations, a great deal of time-wasting, legal costs and confusion will likely result by the RIBA in London sanctioning the creation of another entity in the United States bearing the RIBA name and claiming to be something that it most certainly is not.

    Phil Allsopp, RIBA, FRSA
    Vice President, RIBA-USA Board of Directors

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