Chaos at San Francisco Art Museum After Socialite President Fires Whistleblower

Michele Gutierrez claimed that Dede Wilsey made an inappropriate payment.

Dede Wilsey. Photo: Drew Altizer, courtesy the Nob Hill Gazette.

In October, artnet News reported on a scandal involving Dede Wilsey, a prominent San Francisco philanthropist, socialite, and board president of San Francisco’s de Young museum. At the time, San Francisco authorities were investigating Wilsey for financial misconduct following a claim by the museum’s financial director, Michele Gutierrez, that she made a payment of over $450,000 to a former staffer without the approval of the board.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Gutierrez has since been terminated from her post at San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, which encompasses both de Young and the nearby Legion of Honor.

Gutierrez was on leave caring for her sick mother when the Wilsey accusations broke on October 16. Gutierrez’s brother Bill Gutierrez (who is also her lawyer) allegedly received a call from the museum four days later asking whether Gutierrez preferred to resign or be fired. His answer on behalf of his sister was that she had no reason to resign. The following day, however, she received a call from the museum letting her know that she would be placed on “administrative leave.”

Fine Arts Museums acting director Richard Benefield then allegedly met with staffers from both institutions and informed them that Gutierrez would not be returning, and they would begin the search for a replacement immediately.

The de Young museum. Photo: ALAMY.

The de Young museum.
Photo: Wikipedia.

The Fine Arts Museums declined to comment on the matter.

There are no specific whistle-blower protections for non-profit employees in California, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which will make it difficult for Gutierrez to have any kind of resource against the institution. Last spring, Gutierrez was demoted from her position as chief financial officer to financial director, and an outside consultant, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, has already certified that the demotion was not improper.

The $450,000 payment made by Wilsey to Bill Huggins, a city worker assigned to the museum who retired in 2014 after suffering a heart attack, could threaten the museum’s 501(c)3 non-profit status if deemed improper. Huggins’s wife, Therese Chen, is the director of registration for the de Young, and has reportedly done significant personal favors for Wilsey over the years.

Before writing the check, Wilsey assured Gutierrez that she was getting approval from the 46-member board. Gutierrez later learned from members of the board’s Finance Committee that they knew nothing about the payment.

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