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Bailey Bails, Philippe Leaps: Big Surprises At Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Hispanic Society of America

I don’t know which astonished me more—Colin Bailey‘s short-notice decision to desert the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in June, after barely two years as its director, or Philippe de Montebello‘s decision to attach his formidable reputation to the sadly substandard Hispanic Society of America, by becoming its chairman. (Mitchell Codding remains its executive director.)

Hobbled with staff turnover and without a permanent director for 16 months after John Buchanan‘s death, FAMSF desperately needed stability and scholarly ballast when Bailey assumed the directorship in June 2013, bringing high hopes to the professional staff.

Colin Bailey

Colin Bailey

Philippe de Montebello

Philippe de Montebello

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to believe that he would leave FAMSF in the lurch after such an indecently short tenure, were it not for a feeling on one or both sides that this relationship did not turn out to be as good a fit as was hoped. But both Bailey and his jilted museum have ascribed this turn of events solely to his preference for the directorship at the Morgan Library and Museum over the one that he now holds.

Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, supported that explanation, noting “that Bailey sketched a Fine Arts Museums exhibition schedule three years into the future tends to bear out his intent to stay, as does the enthusiasm for the job that he displayed on the several occasions when I interviewed him.”

Whatever the reason, FAMSF finds itself in the unhappy position of having to mount yet another search. When I asked Ken Garcia, the museums’ director of government and community affairs, whether they’d go back to the shortlist from the previous search, he told me that the plan was to start from scratch. As he did during the last search, Richard Benefield (who greatly impressed me when I chatted with him at the de Young Museum during my visit to San Francisco last month) will run the museum (serving as chief operating officer) until a new director, undeterred by the recent tremors, can be found.

In its press release about Bailey’s departure, FAMSF gave him credit for having “increased the number of fellowships for curators and conservators, as well as reinstalling several of the permanent galleries at both the de Young and Legion of Honor. The museums also acquired several significant gifts and works during his tenure,” including the Weisel Family Foundation Collection of Native American Art and the African sculpture from the Richard Scheller Collection.

As for the Hispanic Society, my dismay at how it trashed the legacy of its founder, Archer Huntington, is undiminished. No matter how much luster the Philippe Connection may impart to this sadly underperformng institution, he can never rewrite its tarnished history of engineering one of the most deplorable deaccessions I’ve ever seen. (One of the most important cast-offs found its way to the Metropolitan Museum).

If de Montebello wants the HSA to raise its profile, he should, for starters, recruit a digital expert who can give it a respectable website. As it stands, the HSA’s online information is sparse and amateurishly designed. In fact, there is no online announcement, at this writing, about its high-profile new chairman. The only press releases on the website date from 2013 (and there are only two of them).

I write this in haste, because I’ll be traveling and working on an (unrelated) mainstream-media assignment. I may occasionally tweet (perhaps with clues on my whereabouts), but I doubt that I’ll be able to post again until early May.

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