Anonymous Donors to Settle Up Contested Payment by San Francisco Art Museum’s Socialite President

The deal is awaiting sign-off by the Attorney General.

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

The state of California’s investigation into a potentially improper payment of a $450,000 disability severance package to a retired engineer made by Diane “Dede” Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, without board approval, may be nearing a resolution.

At a board of trustees meeting held on Tuesday, April 19, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, it was expected that the board would handle a settlement of the investigation. And while the board assigned a legal committee, which arranged for repayment to the museum by anonymous donors, that deal has not yet been signed off by the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Wilsey, a prominent San Francisco philanthropist and socialite, was accused in October of financial misconduct by whistle blower Michele Gutierrez, the museum’s financial director.

City worker Bill Huggins, a stationary engineer who worked at the de Young, retired in 2014 following a heart attack, and received a $450,000 disability payment. Gutierrez reportedly signed off on the arrangement under Wilsey’s assurances that the board had approved the payment, only to learn later that they knew nothing about it.

The de Young museum. Photo: ALAMY.

The de Young museum.
Photo: Wikipedia.

This is where things get tricky: Huggins’s wife, Therese Chen, was the de Young’s director of registration and a close associate of Wilsey’s before she died in March after suffering a stroke. Chen had reportedly carried out significant favors for the museum president.

When the board learned of this potential conflict of interest, two members,  Bernard Osher and Jack McDonald, resigned. Gutierrez was demoted and then placed on leave, and is reportedly negotiating a severance package with the institution. Wilsey has denied any wrongdoing, claiming “this payment required no board approval” in a November letter to trustees.

As for the state investigation, Harris’s press secretary, Rachele Huennekens, told the Chronicle that “the matter is still under review.” The city controller is also conducting an audit of the museum’s finances.

Meanwhile, the de Young and the Legion of Honor, which together make up the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, approved a fifty percent increase in general admission charges at the board meeting. This is the first price increase since the de Young reopened in 2004, and will see general admission rise from $10 to $15 and student tickets remain steady at $6. Children under 18, formerly charged $6, will now receive free admission.

While the institution’s general admission prices had remained low, ticket costs for special exhibitions include hefty surcharges. The de Young’s Keith Haring show in 2014 and 2015 had a weekend general admission cost of $46, and even members had to fork over $26 to see the exhibition.

Even with latest increase, the Fine Arts Museums remain much more affordable than the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, reopening May 14, where general admission costs $25.

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