Objets d'Anarchie: San Francisco Fine Arts Museums in Complete Disarray


In the midst of the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearings on the Prop 8 and DOMA gay marriage cases, San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in the world and “The Gayest Place on Earth,” as a popular souvenir T-shirt reads, finds itself in yet more cultural turmoil. Internal strife has plagued the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as the institution searches for a new director.

The Fine Arts Museums is the largest public arts institution in the city that consists of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park.  With an annual budget of about $55 million, they run in a private-public partnership, with the city contributing 23% of the budget. The rest is accounted for the board of trustees.

For the past 15 months, however, the museums have been without a leader. John Buchannan, the last director died in December 2011, leaving the board in the midst of bitter labor negotiations. Under his leadership, the museums developed new education programs such as Friday nights at the de Young, and reached record levels of visitors, in addition to hosting unprecedented series of special exhibits, such as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections from the Musee d’Orsay.

Although the present unrest has not manifested in the visitor numbers, board employee relations are a blatant mess. In November 2012, Lynn Orr, the curator who helped arrange the “Girl With the Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshius” exhibition at the de Young, was abruptly fired. More than half-dozen staff members were forced out this past year. The in-house design department was eliminated all together. Additionally, internal documents and emails have been leaked to the public. Some of these have aimed at embarrassing management. Others deal with serious integrity allegations: a more recent leak accused museum leaders of changing the appraised value of a painting by Modigliani from $500,000 to $15,000 to avoid what is believed to be hefty customs fees. Investigation of this is still pending.

Many believe that problems arise with Diane B. Wilsey, the board president, as well as a prominent art collector, philanthropist, and San Francisco socialite. She has been criticized for nepotism, specifically for her decision to let her son exhibit his photography collection in the museum last summer, and for using museum personnel to tend to her personal collection. Additionally, Wilsey has been accused of exerting too much behind-the-scenes control over the museums and of not conducting oversight of the budget, financial audits, and facilities in a public or transparent manner.

To all these allegations, Wilsey has responded by stating that she has been the motivating force behind the museums’ expansions and new developments. She has also confirmed that the board plans to announce a new director in the coming weeks.