Infighting at SF's Largest Public Arts Org?

Controversy is brewing behind the scenes at the city-owned Fine Arts Museums — the organization that operates both the M.H. de Young museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in the city's Seacliff neighborhood.

The Fine Arts Museums has been without a director for the last 15 months, since former director John Buchanan passed away, and there's been a steady of chorus of complaints about the museums' direction and the departure of longtime staff members.

Now, many museum employees, donors, and trustees are voicing their concerns that board president Diane Wilsey has gained too much influence in her position, with the controversy featured in a recent New York Times story. With an annual budget of a little more than $50 million, the Fine Arts Museums is the largest public arts institution in the country.

The museums' Curator Emeritus, Robert Flynn Johnson, went as far as to the call it "a state of Orwellian dysfunction."

Wilsey has been president of the Fine Arts Museums board for almost 15 years, and she's been instrumental in making the museum what it is today. After the original de Young was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Wilsey led a private fundraising push for the construction of a new museum, bringing in $190 million for the project. (The newer building opened in 2005.)

But in the last few years, the list of complaints about the board's direction — as well as Wilsey's overreaching influence — has only grown.

Last year, the museum hosted a photography exhibit featuring the work of Wilsey's son, which brought out the charges of nepotism, and more recently, several museum employees have said they were forced out of their positions because they were supportive of the museum's unionized workers. Curator Lynn Orr, who brought in the de Young's latest main attraction "Girl with the Pearl Earring," was fired last November after 29 years at the museum; she told the Times she felt it was because of her support for union employees.  

Wilsey has also been criticized for using museum personnel to look after her personal collection, as well as her support for a measure to extend the term limit of board presidents, the position she currently holds.

But the embattled board president told the Times complaints about her overreach were untrue, saying: "No one person has authority to do anything. I serve at the will of the board, and all decisions are made through the staff. We are a public institution and we are totally transparent."

The silver lining is that a new director might be on the horizion for the Fine Arts Museums. Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a new director has been approved by the board and will be announced in the coming weeks, which could squash the controversy as the museum heads in a new direction.