“Nothing Has Changed”: Dede Wilsey Retains Steely Grip on SF’s Museums

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Dede Wilsey, Helgi Tomasson

Dede Wilsey, Helgi Tomasson / Viva Vivanista

September 27, 2016; San Francisco Chronicle

“She can laugh and joke with anyone, even a truck driver,” said Harry Parker, the Fine Arts Museums’ director from 1987 to 2005. “Her failing is that she has not always listened to what people told her if they didn’t have social standing.”

Dede Wilsey, San Francisco socialite fundraiser extraordinaire and a familiar NPQ subject, has managed to survive the resignation of a number of Fine Arts Museums’ board members in protest of her continued presence. Even after the board paid a $2 million settlement to a whistleblower fired after reporting an unauthorized payment of $450,000 to a former employee—an incident that eventually caught the attention of the attorney general’s office—she persists. The AG, who herself reportedly has received some contributions from Wilsey, is still considering the case. A city controller’s report on the matter is due out next month.

Many have speculated on her future with the museums through all of this. No matter: the board of the museums has made only the most minor of changes, shifting Wilsey’s title from president to chair of the board. (That ought to teach her!)

Wilsey called the change, “minimal, none, and mostly at my request.”

“She has no intention of leaving,” said PR spokesperson Nathan Ballard of the woman who some credit as pivotal in raising the $190 million needed to rebuild the de Young Museum after it was damaged by an earthquake. When Max Hollein, the new CEO, was asked if he anticipated less meddling from the board under Wilsey’s new leadership, he answered, “Is that a trick question?”

As for Wilsey herself, who comes straight out of central casting for the role and is often shown dressed to the nines with equally well-groomed dogs in tow…well, here’s a quote from a recent profile in the New York Times:

“You can’t beat me,” Ms. Wilsey said, stroking [her] dog, Dazzle. The top of its head was stained pink from her lipstick kisses. “You will see me prevail. That’s what you will see.”

“I personally feel they should be erecting a statue to me,” she said.

—Ruth McCambridge