Major news in the museum world as local socialite and longtime board president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco which include the deYoung and the Legion of Honor Dede Wilsey is apparently being forced out of the top spot she's held there for nearly two decades. The announcement, which is being framed as Wilsey's own decision and unconnected to a nine-month-old scandal stemming from a large severance payment Wilsey made to a former museums employee without the authorization of the board, arrives via the Chronicle today. And museums spokesperson Ken Garcia says, officially, "After several years of serving as president and CEO, and with a competent director of museums in place, [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."
Wilsey became CEO, in addition to being board president, in 2012 after the death of museums Director John Buchanan, and her authoritarian style in running the organization has been the stuff of much gossip in recent years in particular after firing longtime curator Lynn Orr in 2013, and the subsequent departure of high-profile curator Colin Bailey after just two years on the job.
News of the recent accusation of financial misconduct came last fall via a whistle-blower, former museums CFO Michele Gutierrez, who claimed that Wilsey had instructed her to cut a check for $450,000 in May 2014 to former stationary engineer Bill Huggins, who had been forced to retire and suffered a heart attack, and whose wife Therese Chen, was also a museum employee was known to be close to Wilsey. Chen had to take a leave of absence from her job as Director of Registration at the deYoung in order to care for her ailing husband, and they payment was apparently out of sympathy for the couple's situation. (Sadly, Chen died suddenly of a stroke this past March.) Gutierrez was subsequently demoted to finance director after calling attention to the payment, and was then fired altogether last year.
The $450,000 has been returned to the museum's coffers via "anonymous donors," but it's been rumored that it was largely paid back out of pocket by Wilsey herself.
Wilsey's stepping down as CEO and board president comes, the museums say coincidentally, just as the Board has agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to Gutierrez to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit.
The scandal, in which Wilsey's spokesperson consistently denied any wrongdoing on Wilsey's part, prompted an investigation by the state's attorney general's office last fall, and the resignations of several high-profile members of the 43-person board, including former city attorney Louise Renne. And according to the Chron, it could have threatened the museums' non-profit status. As part of the attorney general's office recommendations, it was suggested that Wilsey's position as board president should not remain a lifetime one.
Wilsey is credited as a great fundraiser for the museum who was largely responsible for raising the $190 million it took to rebuild the deYoung Museum a decade ago.
Now, she will be replaced by two co-chairs of the board, former Visa President and CEO Carl Pascarella and Jack Calhoun, a former president of Banana Republic, who are expected to be elected when the board next meets in October.
Pascarella and Calhoun headed the search committee that led to the recent appointment of new museums director Max Hollein. Hollein started the job June 1, nearly three years after the abrupt departure of Bailey.
Wilsey is expected to remain on the board.