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Dede Wilsey Resigns as de Young & Legion of Honor Board Chair

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The de Young Museum at night. (Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Dede Wilsey is a powerful fundraiser and donor on the San Francisco arts scene. But her 20-year tenure as president and four-year tenure as CEO of the board of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) — collectively known as the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor — has been tumultuous.

And now it’s over.

Wilsey announced her resignation as board chair of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday.  

A long scandal

Wilsey’s exit follows a $2 million settlement payout, the latest turn in a scandal that’s been stewing since former chief financial officer Michele Gutierrez filed a lawsuit last fall. Gutierrez alleged Wilsey forced her out for blowing the whistle on the board chair’s decision to spend nearly half a million dollars of the museum’s money to help a former staffer.


At the time, Wilsey claimed she didn’t need the board’s approval to authorize a $450,000 loan to Bill Huggins, who retired while struggling with a heart condition. His wife, museum registrar Therese Chen, worked closely with Wilsey before going on leave to care for him. Huggins and Chen both died shortly after.

According to sources who prefer to remain unnamed, Wilsey initially tried to encourage fellow board members to help pay back the loan. But that back-fired. Four board members resigned, including former San Francisco city attorney Louise Renne and powerhouse philanthropist Bernard Osher. In April, FAMSF announced the $450,000 loan would be repaid by anonymous donors.

Then the state attorney general’s office and city controller’s offices launched investigations. In May, controller Ben Rosenfield told KQED his office moved up its periodic payroll audit to address growing interest in FAMSF management. Now Rosenfield says he expects to issue a report some time in the coming weeks. The attorney general’s office confirmed Monday that its investigation is ongoing.

The city contributes roughly one fifth of FAMSF’s budget. A city performance audit raised concerns about the governance structure back in 2012. But only now, the Chronicle reports, is there talk of rewriting of the board’s bylaws to eliminate a provision that allowed Wilsey to serve as board president for life — something the attorney general’s office suggested.

Generous supporter

Despite the issues that arose during her tenure as FAMSF board chair, Wilsey herself is one of San Francisco’s most loyal and generous philanthropists, and she sits on the boards of the San Francisco Opera,  the San Francisco Ballet, and the San Francisco War Memorial, in addition to FAMSF.

“There are very few philanthropic organizations that have not received money from Dede,” said one FAMSF board member who preferred to remain anonymous.   (Full disclosure: KQED is one of the many Bay Area organizations that receives regular donations from Wilsey.)

Wilsey is largely responsible for raising $190 million dollars — some of it her own money — to build the present site for the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. She’s worked similar fundraising wonders for Grace Cathedral, UCSF Children’s Hospital and the Immaculate Conception Academy in the Mission.

Culture of “No Comment.”

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are governed by three Boards of Trustees: the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is the most influential of the three; its 43 board members are by varying degrees rich, powerful and well-connected.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Wilsey will stay on the FAMSF board, albeit in a reduced capacity. Her continued relationship with the institution and deep and broad involvement in the local arts scene thus makes it difficult to get anyone to go on the record about Wilsey’s resignation, her management style or the events of the last year.

KQED reached out to no less than 19 potential sources for comment on Monday, from FAMSF insiders to those only tangentially-related to the San Francisco socialite and arts doyenne.  Colin Bailey, Wilsey’s previous choice for director, stayed only two years before decamping for the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. He declined to comment. Max Hollein, the new director as of Jun. 1, did not respond to a request for comment. FAMSF did not respond to a request for comment.

Wilsey will be replaced at the next board meeting in October by two co-chairs — former Visa president and CEO Carl Pascarella and Jack Calhoun, former president of Banana Republic.  The Chronicle article says both of these men are close to Wilsey.

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