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Willful Wilsey: Colin Bailey’s First Problem as Director at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (plus Bailey as mentor, with video)


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

It’s probably a good thing that Colin Bailey wasn’t present at the de Young Museum for yesterday’s celebratory announcement of his selection to be the next director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Had he been there, he would likely have winced at remarks by Diane “Dede” Wilsey, the museums’ voluble president. During the question-and-answer part of the event, she stated that Bailey would “evaluate whether we have the finest people we can have,” in consultation with Richard Benefield, the deputy director, “should he [Bailey] choose to keep the deputy director. He has the ability to remove whoever he might want to remove.”

Wilsey had begun her comments by saying that FAMSF’s staff is “a happy lot” and “a very confident group of people.” But their confidence can only have been shaken by these rambling remarks about cleaning house.

When starting a job overseeing a museum that has suffered through a great deal of staff turmoil, including the departure of a respected curator of European art (Bailey’s specialty), the last thing that an incoming director wants is for the existing team to regard him warily as a lean, mean firing machine. Nothwithstanding Wilsey’s veiled threat, I suspect the curators are relieved that their work will be soon be overseen by a highly distinguished member of their own tribe.

In his interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bailey immediately struck the right collegial note: “Of course we want morale to be as high as it should be.”

Wilsey mentioned that Bailey’s focus would be “on the art that we have in this museum,” an apparent reference to the predilection of the previous director, the late John Buchanan, for importing blockbusters organized elsewhere. But in the video of the absent Bailey that was shown yesterday, he expressed awe and admiration for FAMSF’s high blockbuster-quotient.

In light of Wilsey’s indiscreet performance, one of Bailey’s first orders of business as director should be to politely but firmly muzzle his impolitic board head. As a journalist, I should be the last one to suggest that Dede should be less forthcoming with the press. But when she opens her mouth, she frequently does herself and her institution a disservice. The polished, professional director should become the museum’s chief spokesperson from the day he sets foot in his new office (maybe before).

I had a classic did-she-really-say-that moment when Wilsey told me earlier this month that she had delayed the director’s search for an entire year because she had buried two husbands, understood the mourning process, and needed “to just let all the staff really process his [Buchanan’s] death, because he was really very much beloved.” Yesterday, she described the search process in very different terms, as you can see in this video of the announcement.

Perhaps the best evidence of Wilsey’s tone-deafness is the “Q&A” included on FAMSF’s webpage announcing Bailey’s appointment. I clicked that link expecting to see questions being addressed to the new designee. Instead, it turned out to be a self-serving Conversation with Diane B. Wilsey, which seemed, in part, to an attempt to deflect growing criticism of her for “not exercising appropriate governance at the Board level,” in the words of one of the questions put to her by an unidentified interlocutor.

But let’s go to Bailey’s soon-to-be former institution, the Frick Collection, where it’s out with the old guard, in with the new.

Below is my CultureGrrl Video from the press preview for the current Piero della Francesca in America show at the Frick (to May 19), guest-curated by Nathaniel Silver, a newly minted art historian, fresh from completing his PhD after a two-year stint in the Frick’s Mellon Fellow program for emerging curators (where he greatly benefited from Bailey’s mentorship).

Entrusted with organizing the first exhibition in the U.S. devoted to early Italian Renaissance master (a seven-work monographic installation, four of the paintings from the Frick’s own collection), the silver-tongued Silver was more poised and fluently articulate at the press preview than many more seasoned professionals. His insights, however, as expressed in the show and its accompanying catalogue, didn’t quite rise to Bailey-an standards: Silver’s analysis was more minutely descriptive of the works’ appearance and history than deeply interpretive of their technical accomplishment, significance and impact.

At the beginning of Silver’s talk, it was hard for me to get close to him in the dense press scrum, so the sound quality of this video clip is a bit muddy at first. It improves at about 1:45, as Silver gets to the work in the show that, for me, is its star—the Frick’s own “Saint John the Evangelist,” 1454-69. It is far less showy but more profound than the one work in the exhibition that isn’t from an American collection (notwithstanding the exhibition’s title). Like all but one of the works in the show, this painting from Lisbon is from the destroyed altarpiece of the Church of Sant’Agostino in Piero’s native city, Borgo San Sepolcro:

Catalogue essayist James Banker, Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University, gazes at "Saint Augustine," 1454-69, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Catalogue essayist James Banker, Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University, gazes at “Saint Augustine,” 1454-69, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Frick’s “Saint John” is far more expressive of its subject’s inner life, as you’ll see from its image in the video. For spiritual resonance, Fra Angelico‘s emotionally approachable subjects are, for me, more compelling than this show’s inscrutable, impassive Pieros, which possess a gravitas that may inspire awe but not sympathetic devotion.

At about 1:41 in this clip, you’ll catch a glimpse of Bailey himself, gazing appreciatively upon his protegé:

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