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Philanthropist Diane Wilsey Steps Down From Museum Leadership

June 11, 2019

The creation of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera in the Veterans Memorial Building in 2016 was just one of the legions of major contributions Wilsey has made to San Francisco Bay Area arts organizations.

The Center was a major goal and accomplishment in the decade-long leadership of former S.F. Opera General Director David Gockley, who called the facility “a dream come true — if one born of absolute necessity.”

In an interview with Haute Living, Wilsey was quoted to say about her philanthropy: “Once you really understand that you can make a difference, I think that’s the bottom line of all philanthropy. You can do something that changes somebody’s life.”

Now that Wilsey, known by the nickname “Dede,” is stepping down as board president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, her important and controversial career as a major philanthropist will be closely examined. In fact, her relationship to FAMSF, the umbrella organization for the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, is the crucial subject in the yin-and-yang of Wilsey’s history.

Wilsey, 75, has been a pivotal figure in the contemporary history of the museums. When voters turned down ballot measures to rebuild the earthquake-weakened de Young, Wilsey led the effort to do the big job with private funding, drove the successful campaign bringing in more than $200 million for the brilliant 2005 project by Herzog & de Meuron, and donated $10 million of her own money.

Wilsey worked closely with museum director John Buchanan, and when he died on Dec. 30, 2011, Wilsey took over day-to-day governance of FAMSF, and in the years that followed, she created controversy, enmity, and lawsuits. She fired dozens of key employees, including world-renowned curators, and was charged, by board members who quit in protest, with running the organization like a personal fiefdom.

Wilsey’s many other contributions have been far less controversial. She has long served on the boards of the S.F. Opera and S.F. Ballet, making substantial contributions to both organizations. She raised $3.2 million for the Immaculate Conception Academy and headed a $16.6 million fundraising drive for Grace Cathedral. According to one source, she contributed to more than 380 charities in 2016.

She has been a vice chair of the S.F. Ballet’s Board of Trustees and among her contributions was shared sponsorship of the important 2018 “Unbound” festival.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].