The New York Times reports on Diane Wilsey, the embattled chief of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco board who, after twenty years at the heart of the City by the Bay’s cultural-philanthropic nexus, is facing open revolt.
Wilsey (or “Dede” as she is universally known) is a remarkably impressive fundraiser. She “almost single-handedly” raised more than $200 million for the de Young’s tenth anniversary. She has brought in major exhibits from European galleries, including Picassos and other continental masterworks, and has overseen the renovations and redesigns of some of San Francisco’s top museums. She is one of the city’s cultural centerpieces, a fixture on the social scene, and well-connected to the great and good (Nancy Pelosi recently praised Dede at a gala in her honor as a “fearless” visionary). In possession of the confidence and poise that comes of being an ambassador’s daughter, Dede has been independently wealthy after the 2002 death of her magnate husband (the Times spread details her taste for Oscar de la Renta gowns and emerald-and-diamond jewelry).
And as one might expect, she is by now every inch the eccentric socialite, having named walls in the de Young after her dogs Eliza, Serena, and Sparkle.
In limited doses, this proclivity to self-indulgence may seem a charming foible. But after two decades in power, members of the Fine Arts Museums board are beginning to resent Dede’s iron grip. Four key board members have resigned while the California attorney general investigates an unauthorized $457,000 payment made by Dede to an underling’s husband. Other irregular pay-outs have attracted similar criticism. One board member, Dan Johnson, told the Times that he and other members are sick of Dede “running the place like a personal fiefdom.” A few years ago Dede changed the board bylaws to significantly empower the chair and dismantled term limits. A former curator working under Dede said the Museums were operating under “a state of Orwellian dysfunction” where employees could be (and were) removed at her whim.
The subsequent fallout has been typical. Amid growing calls for increased transparency and board reorganization, Dede has dug in her heels. “I have not been asked to step down and am not planning to retire,” she told the Times; a crisis management consultant hired by Dede added that, “nothing is final until a proposal is approved by the board in October and until then Mrs. Wilsey continues in her current roles.”
This particular drama is interesting not just for the larger-than-life character of Dede Wilsey around which it turns. Beyond that, it raises important questions about nonprofit leadership. Dede does seem to have run the Fine Arts Museums board like her own fiefdom, but at the same time she’s proved a more capable and bold leader than anyone could have hoped for.
While several board members have tried to insist on the need for term limits as a remedy to Dede’s seemingly endless reign, this is not a silver bullet. A board chair should be able to serve as long as she continues to be effective, and there’s no necessary virtue to replacing a good leader.
But in light of the significant ill-will whipped up by Dede’s confrontational style, she imperils her capacity to preside over a smoothly functioning board. And as this controversy now spreads beyond the board, her bad reputation has begun to poison the Museums’ reputation in other cities: Hugh Davies, director of San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art calls Dede “crazy [and] dictatorial” and admits he’s “very dissatisfied” with the actions of the other trustees.”
Regardless of how long she’s been in office, Dede’s first priority should be the protection and preservation of her organisation’s reputation. Unless she makes some highly visible public concessions soon, she will lose control of her board and invite an all-out PR war that may set back fundraising efforts for the Museums for years to come.