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“Mourning Process”: Diane Wilsey Justifies San Francisco Museums’ Delayed Director’s Search


Loaned to Metropolitan Museum’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity show: Berthe Morisot, “Interior,” 1872, Collection of Diane Wilsey
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Artworld commentators have recently raised questions about the long 14-month vacancy in the director’s post at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Perhaps they should have put those questions directly to Diane “Dede” Wilsey. As president of the museum’s board, she is overseeing the search.

Revealing that an active search for a new director (to replace John Buchanan, who died in December 2011) had begun only about two months ago, Wilsey gave me this astonishing explanation for inaction, in a recent phone interview:

Because I’ve had two husbands die, I am well aware of the mourning process. John didn’t care to tell anyone at the museum that he was ill, so no one knew it. I knew it. His wife knew it.

But because of that, I intentionally waited a year to just let all the staff really process his death [emphasis added], because he was really very much beloved. You just couldn’t bring in a new person and say, “Here’s our new director,” because they would have resented whoever it was, no matter how wonderful the person was.

We really didn’t start the search until the end of 2012. I formed a committee….But I intentionally waited, because there just wouldn’t have been any point….

It’s kind of like finding a new husband and having a baby all at once, because it’s really an important decision….

We’re getting to the point where we’re prepared to make an offer….We’ve taken a long time, because I wanted all the people at the museum to heal and be receptive. And now they’re very much looking forward to a new director.

I’ll say they are! A FAMSF curator with whom I spoke recently expressed consternation and perplexity about the long interregnum, noting that he regards the place where he works as a fine institution.

Richard Benefield has been the highest ranking museum staff member since last September, when he was appointed deputy director. Benefield’s last museum staff position, according to his Linked-In page, was a stint of less than three years as executive director of the Walt Disney Family Museum, which ended in May 2011 (more than a year before he assumed his post at FAMSF). Buchanan, known for mounting high-profile, blockbuster exhibitions, had directed FAMSF for almost six years.

Jesse Hamlin‘s recent report (linked at the top) in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the directorless museums “have been the subject of rumors about the string of staff departures and who’s running the institution.”

Most notable among the “departures” was “the unexplained dismissal [my link, not Hamlin’s] in December of Lynn Orr, the museums’ esteemed curator of European art.”

Meanwhile, Wilsey has recently been criticized (as reported in Hamlin’s piece) for use of the museum’s staff to pack some of her privately owned artworks for loan to other institutions. The Morisot pictured at the top is currently on temporary display at the Metropolitan Museum.

Contrary to the beliefs of a couple of recent commentators, the use of museum space and staff for the storage and care (including conservation) of privately owned works, while certainly problematic (particularly if the works are not promised to the museum), is nothing new: I wrote a detailed article about such practices in “The Care and Feeding of Donors,” an award-winning article that appeared in the November 1978 issue of ARTnews.

What I have never heard of, in four decades of cultural reporting, is putting a museum’s administration in a state of suspended animation in order to observe a prolonged period of ritual mourning. While I don’t know if Dede believed that the black-garbed woman in her Morisot, above, was in mourning, the Met’s label says she’s not: “Her hair is coiffed and her outfit accessorized with gold jewelry, indicative that she is not in mourning.”

It may make sense for a bereft widow to delay seeking another husband, but it’s folly for a museum to put off seeking a new leader. The chaotic staff situation at FAMSF is disturbing evidence of the need for a steady hand at the top.

an ArtsJournal blog