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Shifts at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Wilsey Steps Down, Controversy Ramps Up

“None of us want her to step away. She is integral to the museum,” Jason Moment, the new president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), said of his predecessor, Diane (“Dede”) Wilsey, in comments reported Monday by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s art critic, Charles Desmarais.

That appraisal anticipated the board’s Tuesday vote anointing Moment and giving Wilsey the newly created title of “chair emerita.”

Jason Moment, FAMSF’s new president
Photo Courtesy of FAMSF

Notwithstanding Wilsey’s megadonor status and her 21-year tenure in the board’s top spot, her future value to FAMSF could be compromised by an eyebrow-raising opinion piece published Tuesday by the San Francisco ExaminerQuestions Emerge about Legitimacy of Museum Leadership by Anmarie Mabbut, a San Francisco attorney described in her author’s note as an “open government advocate specializing in municipal fee legislation, public-private partnerships and public park access.”

Mabbut alleged that Wilsey “twice sought Board approval of an unlimited tenure for the president” (i.e., herself). Although official approval was not forthcoming, Wilsey continued holding on to her position, with board members’ tacit consent. Mabbut also cited attempts to extend the term limits of the president and of board members, again, according to Mabbut, never formally approved by the board.

All of this, Mabbut suggests, raises questions “as to the legitimacy of [Wilsey’s] reign.” Or perhaps it merely bespeaks a don’t-rock-the-boat procedural laxness on the part of a board overly reliant on one person’s continued largess.

Mabbut relied for her findings on the minutes of the museums’ board meetings. Those are public documents, because FAMSF is under the auspices of the City and County of San Francisco. Mark Buell, president of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, is an ex officio member of FAMSF’s board.

While dismissing Mabbut’s essay as “riddled with errors, misstatements, misunderstandings and unfounded allegations,” the museums’ director of communications, Miriam Newcomer, failed to back up her own allegations with concrete evidence.

Here’s our relevant (but unilluminating) email exchange:

ROSENBAUM: What are the specific inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the Examiner piece, and what is the correct information? 

NEWCOMER: As previously stated, the article is riddled with errors, misstatements, and unfounded allegations. 

Not much help there.

I also emailed the Examiner, asking whether its editors had vetted Mabbut’s piece for accuracy. At this writing, I have received no reply.

It appears that at its June 4 meeting, FAMSF’s board belatedly tried to clarify the murky situation regarding the tenure of board members (including the president). Here’s an excerpt of the ratified Proposed Bylaws Amendment (P. 4):

Except as otherwise provided herein, the tenure of a Trustee shall be limited to three consecutive terms of three years. After a Trustee has completed three consecutive three-year terms, such former Trustee may be considered for re-election to the Board of Trustees for an unlimited number of consecutive three-year terms when the Board of Trustees finds that such former Trustee has demonstrated extraordinary service to the Museums and that such former Trustee’s absence would be detrimental to the Museums [emphases added]….

A former Trustee may be elected a Chair Emeritus/Emerita, a Trustee Emeritus, or an Honorary Trustee; the Trustee Emeritus and Honorary Trustee status categories will be reviewed annually. A Chair Emeritus/Emerita [i.e. Wilsey] or Trustee Emeritus shall be elected based upon outstanding meritorious service to the Museums as a Trustee and in expectation of continued participation and commitment to the goals of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In response to another of my queries, Newcomer acknowledged that FAMSF had asked the Examiner to publish a correction to Mabbut’s piece. But she didn’t share with me the specifics of that request.

Two days after the board meeting that elected Jason Moment to the board presidency and granted Wilsey her newly coined “emerita” status, the official announcement of those changes had not yet been published on the museum’s Press Room website. I created the above link to the announcement from a .pdf that the press office sent me in response to my request for the official statement.

Perhaps this low-key rollout reflects ambivalence felt by certain parties towards the controversial “chair emerita”: While FAMSF’s statement noted that “the Board expresses its gratitude to Mrs. Wilsey and Mr. Moment for their past and future leadership,” a pro forma expression of thanks to the outgoing president from the current occupant of FAMSF’s revolving-door directorshipTom Campbell, the formerly embattled director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum—was notably missing.

That said, Campbell did offer these words of appreciation for Wilsey’s pragmatic worth, in comments made to Desmarais of the Chronicle:

“Dede is so much more than a checkbook. She has a steel-trap memory for things that happened decades ago—she’s an institutional memory vault.” He [Campbell] called her “really fun and whip-smart.” And, crucially, “she can get anyone on the line within minutes.”

Dede Wilsey & Tom Campbell
Photo Courtesy of FAMSF

By contrast, Moment, 42, has a lower profile. He is a principal and portfolio manager at Route One Investment Company and has served on the museums’ Executive Committees since 2017.

CultureGrrl readers already know my views regarding “Willful Wilsey’s” eccentric leadership (here, here and here). Will FAMSF’s regime change under Campbell and Moment, coupled with the impact of the Examiner’s examination, result in lasting governance reforms and sorely needed stability? Or will the directorial game of musical chairs continue?

Time will tell…

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