Wealthy socialite enlists Fine Arts Museums staff to help with her personal art collection
The FAMSF has been leaderless since director John Buchanan died in December, 2011.
Though the museums are public institutions, their governance structure is similar to that of a public-private partnership, since a private nonprofit organization called the Corporation of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco handles museum administration and employs a number of museum staff, including curators and other professionals.
The city contributes some public funding to FAMSF, but the majority of revenue is derived from private sources. Wilsey, a multi-millionaire, contributed $10 million to the de Young, and spearheaded a 10-year fundraising campaign that culminated in 2005 with more than $180 million raised to rebuild the museum.
The socially connected philanthropist, known for throwing Christmastime bashes that attract a roster of powerful luminaries from government and big business to her Pacific Heights mansion, is often the subject of press reports or gossip surrounding San Francisco high society. Her stepson, Sean Wilsey, famously characterized Wilsey as his "evil stepmother" in his memoir, "Oh, the Glory of It All," which includes an unflattering scene in which she is said to have pinned $200,000 brooches onto her bathrobe one Christmas morning.
She owns a fair amount of art — and apparently moves it around. In August of 2011, for instance, email threads show that Chen, using her FAMSF email address, contacted Jamil Abou-Samra of Masterpiece International, the shipping company, regarding "Mrs. Wilsey's Degas." Chen wrote: "I brought the Degas to the de Young last week for glazing. It should be ready for Steve to measure for crating any days [sic] now. Are we still looking at August 30, Tuesday, for pick up?" The thread indicates that the painting was destined for the Royal Academy of Arts, in London.
An Internet search shows that the Royal Academy indeed hosted an exhibit titled "Degas and the Ballet," which opened in September of 2011. Press reports highlighting the artwork on display include an image of a Degas credited to "Collection of Diane B. Wilsey."
There is no mention of the de Young or the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco anywhere in the web or press materials discussing the exhibition. Numerous other cooperating museums are identified by name.
When the Guardian reached Abou-Samra by phone, she indicated that she was not at liberty to discuss any of Masterpiece International's handling of art shipments.
OFF TO PARIS
In February of 2011, email records show, Chen contacted Brindmore on his FAMSF email regarding a crate for a painting by Jean-Louis Forain that was bound for an exhibition at the Petit Palais, in Paris. The Parisian exhibit was launched in partnership with a Forain exhibit at Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis.
"Dede has a Forain painting that needs to be packed and crated ... The painting is currently in our storage and [FAMSF staff member Steven Correll] knows the exact location," Chen wrote to Brindmore. A few weeks later, Chen provided some special handling instructions for the Forain in an email to Samra, of Masterpiece International, just before it was transported to the airport.
There are established professional standards governing the operations of art museums, and the Guardian phoned several experts to determine whether it's common practice for a member of the Board of Trustees to call upon museum staff members to handle their personal artwork. In response, communications director Dewey Blanton of the American Alliance of Museums highlighted an ethical standard stating, "No individual can use his or her position with the museum for personal gain."
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