Powerful Philanthropist Steps Down—sort of—from SF Fine Arts Museums

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Dede Wilsey, Helgi Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet 2011 Opening Night Gala – Dede Wilsey, Helgi Tomasson / Viva Vivanista

July 25, 2016; New York Times

When the headlines screamed that Dede Wilsey was stepping down from her role as head of the board and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, we could hardly believe it. Wilsey, who—to judge from photographs—arguably has a better formalwear wardrobe than anyone we’ve ever written about, has been making headlines for a while for her tendency to treat the museums’ assets as fully under her control. In 2014, she ordered almost a half-million dollars in severance for a former employee and husband of another employee known to do her plenty of favors. Presumably, in her mind, as board chair and CEO, she had that right, only presenting the board with the required resolution to sign after the fact.

Did we forget to mention that the Fine Arts Museums have a special provision that allows the board president to hold that office for life? In a 2013 article in Muckety, Wilsey was described as “something of a potentate,” as “having too much clout,” and at one and the same time the museums’ “savior and potential destroyer.”

But then came the palace revolt. The DeYoung Museum’s CFO, Maria Gutierrez, accused the socialite of neglecting to get board approval before that severance package was cut despite telling her that she had it, thus placing Gutierrez in the bad position of cutting an unauthorized check. In return for her good citizenship, Gutierrez was immediately placed on leave. But the story does not end there, of course; Gutierrez has just been awarded a $2 million settlement on top of a severance package in return for her agreement not to bring a wrongful termination suit.

In the usual unsatisfying way of these statements about resignations in the midst of scandal, Fine Arts Museums spokesperson Ken Garcia told the San Francisco Chronicle that “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.”

The attorney general, who is still in the middle of an investigation into the situation, suggests that that the “for-life” provision for board leadership be removed. Nevertheless, Dede Wilsey isn’t really going anywhere; she remains on the board.—Ruth McCambridge