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Willful Wilsey Wilts: Regime Change at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The long overdue wresting of control over the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from a bejeweled socialite and consummate fundraiser, Diane “Dede” Wilsey, is finally occurring under the museums’ new director, Max Hollein, who assumed his post on June 1.

What we don’t yet know is whether Max impelled this change or just got lucky.

In her dual role as FAMSF’s board president and CEO, Wilsey was an eccentric, capricious leader, delaying the naming of a successor to late director John Buchanan on the shaky grounds that the staff needed more time to mourn him, and then conspicuously wrong-footing the beginning of Colin Bailey‘s surprisingly short stint in that post.

Colin Bailey listening to Diane Wilsey in FAMSF’s video introducing the new director

Colin Bailey listening to Diane Wilsey
Screenshot from FAMSF’s 2013 video introducing the new director

Now, as revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s investigative reporting team of Phil Matier and Andy Ross, Wilsey is to relinquish her two leadership posts, but “is expected to stay on the 43-member board, possibly as president emeritus,” according to the digging duo’s anonymous sources. Hollein will, they say, “assume Wilsey’s duties as CEO.”

That’s as it should be (but wasn’t). The professional guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors—Professional Practices in Art Museums (p. 5)—have this to say:

The board should appoint the director—to whom it delegates responsibility for day-to-day operations—to be the chief executive officer [emphasis added] of the museum.

I am trying to fact-check with FAMSF’s press office the Chronicle’s detailed (but anonymously sourced) report. At this writing, I’ve received no reply.

FAMSF’s official statement to the Chronicle (not, at this writing, posted on the museums’ press website) says that “after several years of serving as president and CEO, and with a competent director [emphasis added] of museums in place, [Wilsey] believes it will serve the museums better for her to now focus on other areas where her skills and expertise will have a positive impact” [presumably, fundraising].

“Competent director” Hollein, whose dual passion for tradition and innovation I came to admire during my two in-depth conversations with him, is no slouch at fundraising, having successfully sought private largess to decrease his three Frankfurt, Germany, museums‘ dependence on government subsidy.

Max Hollein Photo by Gaby Gerster

Max Hollein
Photo by Gaby Gerster

An accomplished, savvy administrator, Max was unlikely to stand for Wilsey’s unorthodox usurpation of a director’s and full board’s customary authority. Matier and Ross suggest that this type of behavior may have contributed to her sudden loss of power.

According to their Chronicle report:

Wilsey…is giving up her top spot after the museums paid a $2 million settlement [emphasis added] to a former high-ranking executive who said Wilsey had her ousted for revealing alleged misspending of museum money.

That “high-ranking executive” was former Chief Financial Officer Michele Gutierrez. Under the terms of the settlement, according to the Chronicle’s sources, Gutierrez dropped her plan to file a wrongful-termination lawsuit, in relation to her having blown the whistle on Wilsey’s alleged diversion of $450,000 in museum funds, without approval by FAMSF’s board, “to an ailing former staffer,” according to the Chronicle’s report.

The newspaper also noted that “museum officials insist the legal settlement and Wilsey’s pending exit aren’t connected.” That said, the state Attorney General’s Office is reportedly investigating the allegations that triggered the Gutierrez settlement. “In April,” the Chronicle reported, “the museums announced that anonymous donors would repay” FAMSF for the $450,000 that it had transferred to the ailing ex-staffer.

This contretemps “helped trigger a management shakeup and rewriting of the board’s bylaws. As part of that shakeup, the museums intend to eliminate a provision that allowed Wilsey to serve as board president for life.” [For life?!? Really?]

Perhaps “this rewriting of the bylaws” also should include a clear, unbreachable delineation of the respective responsibilities and powers of the director and of the board, so that the irregularities of the Wilsey Era never recur.

an ArtsJournal blog