Shakeup at SF museums

9-5-2016

Michael Raffety

Although the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in March announced the hiring of a new director from museums in Frankfurt Germany, the future of the de Young and Legion of Honor museums will be less exciting after Dede Wilson was forced out as president of FAMSF in July.

Wilson, according to a column by Phillip Matier and Andy Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle, “is credited with almost single-handedly raising $190 million to rebuild the earthquake damaged de Young in Golden Gate Park.”

For me, though, she will be forever associated with the huge blockbuster exhibits of Impressionist, Post Impressionist, Picasso, the collection from Vienna Museum and the massive show of John Paul Gautier fashion. Her father was U.S ambassador to France, so I assume she speaks French very well.

It was her partnership with the late Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director John Buchanan that won those shows for San Francisco. They traveled to Europe, principally France and hobnobbed with museum directors there. These fantastic art exhibits came to them because these French museums were closing for remodeling, ditto Vienna.

Buchanan used these big shows to also showcase related selections from the Legion’s huge collection of prints.

Buchanan died in 2012. What I didn’t know until the detailed Chronicle story was that 1. Wilson was president for life, and 2. She took over as CEO after Buchanan’s death.

Wilson was always a major funder of exhibitions, has contributed a number of paintings to the permanent collection and loaned paintings for some of the exhibits. For that reason it doesn’t bother me in the least that “she used museum personnel to tend to her personal art collection.”

The real faux pas by Dede Wilson, though, was paying $450,000 out of museum funds to an ailing former staffer, a stationary engineer who had a heart attack. His wife, a longtime museum registrar went on leave to care for him, but she died of a stroke.

The museum’s chief financial officer was fired by Wilsey. That person, Michele Gutierrez, then filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. Meanwhile an anonymous donor repaid the museum’s $450,000 in April. Most assume it was Wilsey.

Gutierrez administered the coup de grace when she filed a whistle-blower complaint with City Hall and the state Attorney General in October. That motivated the board to agree to a $2 million settlement with Gutierrez.

The upshot is that the new museum director, Max Hollein, will take the CEO title and Wilsey is being replaced by two co-chairmen.

The museum flack’s version is that 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.”

The new museum director seems like quite a catch. He has run and expanded the two art museums in Frankfurt since 2001, which means he will likely be a long-term director in San Francisco.

“He is known for prodigious fund raising, innovative exhibitions, management and leadership skills, transforming institutions, building collections, and broadening audiences by making art more accessible,” the March 22 press release stated.

Hollein is a native of Vienna, where he studied art history and business administration. He began his career as a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

More importantly, he has a lot of connections to other art museums. “Hollein is a member of supervisory and advisory boards of cultural institutions worldwide, including the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Istanbul Modern Museum, the Neue Galerie in New York and the National Gallery in Prague.”

I expect Hollein to be more stable than the last guy, who was just a placeholder. I foresee big exhibits in the future.

I also predict this co-chairmanship won’t last. Look for the inimitable Dede Wilson to make a presidential comeback after all this blows over in a couple of years. But president for life is out and so is being CEO.

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