Recently, AIGA sent members a slick brochure titled "Stimulating thinking about design. Giving designers voice." It described AIGA's mission and goals, strategies, and opportunities. It also posed a choice between either a "status quo" option or a "transformative" option. Members also received emails describing both options and asking them to "vote" for one.
Let's be honest here. "Status quo" versus "transformation" is not a neutral or balanced choice. The words are loaded. In George Lakoff's terms, the argument is being "framed"—weighted toward one side. Who but a few old-timers would favor the "status quo?” Who doesn't want transformation, especially where AIGA is concerned? This is nothing more than a false choice.
But why is AIGA doing this? What's actually going on here? The answer is simple. Some members of the staff and board want to sell the organization's headquarters building in New York.
In 1994, AIGA bought the building for $1.2 million. The organization did this primarily through member donations and fundraising. The money was raised through blood, sweat and tears, and it was a grand moment in the organization’s then 80-year history. The building gave AIGA a presence, a public gallery space, office space for both the AIGA National staff and the New York Chapter staff (who pay rent), space for an archive, a small library, and conference areas.
Over the years the building proved to be a good investment, and while not perfect, it served the organization well. Every once in a while someone suggested selling the building in order to feel more cash rich, but this suggestion never really gained any traction.
Until this year. In early 2013, Doug Powell, then National President, started canvassing a small number of former board members to inquire as whether they would support the building’s sale. With proceeds from the sale, AIGA might buy a new building, create an endowment, and fund a variety of activities.
In the face of reports that AIGA had received an offer of over $20M for the building, talk of a possible sale grew more urgent. Some recognized that the existing space is not perfect, and that proceeds from a possible sale could potentially fund a better, more useable space. Others were less worried about the loss of the building but felt that selling the largest single financial asset of the organization without a sound financial plan in place to best protect the future of AIGA was not in the best interest of its members.
Queries were made, and opinions shared. A groundswell seemed to grow with former National Presidents, long-term member advocates, AIGA medalists and the organization’s most loyal financial supporters weighing in with questions: “Why do we need to sell now?” “Is the organization in financial distress?” “Where is AIGA going to go?” “Are we going to rent or buy a new space?”
All of these questions might be answered with a detailed strategic plan. Reassurances were made that one was forthcoming. In July, word came that AIGA’s national board had agreed to put the sale of the building on hold in order to address these questions and make sure there was a sound, strategic plan in place to justify any future sale.
Well, evidently, no plans were put on hold. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead of a strategic plan, AIGA offers a sad parody of democracy where members are given a choice between a bright “transformative” future (somehow enabled — and only enabled — by the sale of the building) and the dreary world of the “status quo,” where an asset that has been steadily growing in value for 20 years is retained rather than sold off for some quick cash. The promised strategic plan turns out to be no more and no less than the marketing-speak and vague priorities set forth in the brochure calling for the preposterous vote. The fix is in.
This is baffling and cynical. Didn’t we just agree to pause the sale? Weren’t we going to work together to craft next steps?
Right now, executive director Richard Grefe and some members of the board of directors are pushing an agenda that puts the entire future of AIGA at risk. A building sale has nothing to do with the direction the AIGA takes. In 1994, members of AIGA got together and bought a building for $1.2 million that is now worth over $20 million. If we did that then, couldn’t we raise the money we need today through member philanthropy for whatever transformational activity we desire tomorrow?
Over the last few years, AIGA has eliminated all published material, the annual 365 competition, the 50 Books/50 Covers competition, and the GAIN business conference. An archive was established at the Denver Art Museum that now consists of boxes on metal shelves, and no one knows where the money raised for that initiative has gone. There were more exhibitions, publications, symposiums on education, and critical writing published during the time we’ve had the building than at any other time in AIGA’s history. It is only in the last few years that these initiatives have all been summarily eliminated. Now the building in which so many of them were generated is in peril. In the proposed “transformational” scenario there is not a single initiative that is dependent on funds that could only be raised by selling the building. Any funding promises to local chapters are not clear. We wonder if these will ever come to fruition.
In short, we believe the proposed choices outlining the future of AIGA are misguided, misinformed and manipulative, and should be regarded skeptically by our fellow members.
We want you to know what's going on with your organization. We urge you to reject this false choice. We urge you to vote against "transformation." And, more than anything else, we urge you to demand that the AIGA board develop a real strategic plan before doing something as drastic and irrevocable as selling AIGA's building. You can find the AIGA board and their email addresses here.
Michael Bierut, Past AIGA President and AIGA Medalist
Hugh Dubberly, Past AIGA Board Member
Steven Heller, Past AIGA Board Member and AIGA Medalist
Kit Hinrichs, Past AIGA Board Member and AIGA Medalist
Debbie Millman, Former AIGA President
Noreen Morioka, Current AIGA LA President
Anthony Russell, Past AIGA President
Paula Scher, Past AIGA Board Member and AIGA Medalist
Michael Vanderbyl, Former AIGA President and AIGA Medalist