Dede and the Board: Who will Persevere?

Dede Wilsey

Balenciaga and Spain Opening Gala / Viva Vivanista

August 1, 2016; New York Times

Some dynamics in the nonprofit sector change little from the smallest to the largest organizations and the impact that one large personality can have on an organization is, of course, well known. This story is pretty much the poster child on steroids for that familiar scenario.

Last week, we wrote about Diane “Dede” Wilsey’s resignation after 20 years as chair of the board of the Museums of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Chief executive and fundraiser extraordinaire – a powerful triad of reasons to pay attention to her. At the time, I commented on her extraordinary wardrobe, as does the New York Times in this article:

In October, she took her victory lap in a peach-and-silver Oscar de la Renta gown at the gala celebrating the 10th anniversary of the de Young’s $208 million building project—completed with funds she almost single-handedly raised.

But even as that gala toasted her, California’s attorney general had begun an investigation of her apparently unauthorized payment of almost a half-million dollars to a former employee whose wife she was close to. The whistleblower in the situation, who said that Wilsey lied to her about the payment having been authorized by the board, was summarily placed on leave; eventually, four board members with plenty of their own social standing resigned in protest over the goings-on.

Dan Johnson, one of those who resigned, charged Dede with “running the place like a personal fiefdom.” Even now, he worries that Wilsey’s friends on the board are poised to hop into leadership positions, eventually restoring her to full power and control. Too predictable and plebian a power move, perhaps, for one such as her, but it may work unless Attorney General Kamala Harris puts her foot down.

“They are her cronies,” Johnson entreated, “Has [the board] done anything other than change the deck chairs on the Titanic?”

Wilsey’s chief executive duties (she held both positions) are to be reassigned to the Fine Arts Museums’ new director, Max Hollein, but 72-year-old Wilsey “is not abdicating peacefully,” according to those in the Times.

“I have not been asked to step down and am not planning to retire,” she wrote in an email to the New York Times on Thursday, declining to be interviewed. “I am greatly looking forward to working with our wonderful new director, Max Hollein, who has exciting new ideas for our museums.”

For his part, Hollein said he made his boundaries clear: “I am fully confident that everyone involved will make sure that the director is empowered to run the museums in all aspects and in the best way possible.” We’ll see.

Wilsey seems to like to tie everything up in a pretty designer bow, no matter how questionable the item.

“What I find particularly scandalous is that other trustees at the museum didn’t recognize how highly unusual it is to have a board president without term limits,” Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said. “It contradicts every form of good governance of nonprofits; term limits are absolutely critical for avoiding crazy, dictatorial behavioral.”

“If they allow Dede Wilsey to play any leadership role within the museum, that would be beyond derelict.”—Ruth McCambridge