Mrs. Wilsey's fine art

Wealthy socialite enlists Fine Arts Museums staff to help with her personal art collection

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Fine Arts Museums staff helped ship "The Pink Blouse" by Henri Matisse. It belongs to Board of Trustees President Dede Wilsey.
SF EXAMINER PHOTO OF WILSEY BY CINDY CHEW

rebecca@sfbg.com

A little more than a year ago, Therese Chen, director of registration at San Francisco's de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, sent an email to another staffer concerning "Mrs. Wilsey's new Matisse."

That would be Diane "Dede" Wilsey, the wealthy art collector who is also president of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Chen asked Steve Brindmore, then a museum staff member who also runs a personal art crating business, whether he had a crate for the oil painting, which is titled "The Pink Blouse." According to records from Sotheby's New York auction house, the estimated value of this painting is between $3 and $4 million.

"The painting is on an A-frame in the Examination Room," Chen wrote. "I'm taking the painting over to Dede on Wednesday ... for [an event], and then it will come back here to the de Young to be crated for Portland around the week of Jan. 23."

The exchange suggests that public museum facilities were being used to store and crate a piece of art from Wilsey's personal collection.

Timestamps show that the exchange happened around 1:30 on a Monday, during museum hours. The correspondence was sent using museum staff email. It's unclear what, if anything, this task had to do with the operations of a public museum. But FAMSF clearly handled a painting from the growing private art collection maintained by Wilsey, a major donor and key FAMSF fundraiser who loves Impressionist paintings and seems to gravitate toward works incorporating the color pink.

Beth Heinrich, a spokesperson for the Portland Art Museum, confirmed to the Guardian that a Matisse titled "The Pink Blouse" was indeed loaned to the museum from a private collection, and placed on display in its Impressionist galleries in February of 2012.

The email exchange between Chen and Brindmore is just one thread in a trove of correspondence, invoices, and other documentation anonymously submitted to the Guardian. Put together, the information shows museum staff being asked, during normal business hours, to handle, photograph, crate or arrange shipments for more than a dozen different pieces from Wilsey's personal art collection in just the past two years. The documentation also shows several examples in which museum employees were directed by Chen to digitally reproduce works from Wilsey's private collection.

It's not uncommon for art collectors to put private pieces in the collection of a museum, nor it is unusual for collectors to lend out art to other museums. And if the de Young received some benefit from its association with Wilsey's art, it wouldn't be surprising (or inappropriate) for the museum to help reproduce or ship it.

On the other hand, if Wilsey is loaning out the pieces on her own, from her private collection, and using museum resources, it could raise conflicts of interest.

The de Young, for example, wasn't cosponsoring the Portland exhibit where the Matisse was shown. Since Wilsey just bought the Matisse, it couldn't have been part of the de Young's collection.

There's no indication that it was anything but her personal loan of a valuable painting — facilitated by the staff of a nonprofit that runs a city museum.

Invoices show that some staff members were paid separately for assisting with Wilsey's art collection, in some cases through independent businesses.

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

The Fine Arts Museums include the de Young and the Legion of Honor. Included as charitable trust departments under the City Charter, they are governed by a 43-member Board of Trustees, which is responsible for appointing a director. Wilsey has presided over the body as board president since the 1990s. The bylaws of the board were changed to eliminate term limits for the president, meaning she could stay in the post for as long as her board colleagues want.

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