Dede Wilsey, the San Francisco philanthropist and president of the board of the Fine Arts Museums, is no stranger to tough press. There was the blistering story in the Bay Guardian about her alleged use of museum staffers to tend to her private collection. There was the ensuing, mostly critical article by the New York Times highlighting the board's 15-month gap in hiring a new museum director and the report by San Francisco budget analyst Harvey Rose which criticized the board for a lack of transparency and term limits. There was the wave of negative press around the firing of curator Lynn Orr, who had arranged the exhibition of Vermeer's "Girl With The Pearl Earing," just before her ouster. And, of course, there were Wilsey's previous star turns in this magazine and as an evil stepmother in stepson Sean Wilsey's memoir, Oh The Glory of It All.
But like an exotic plant, the heat has not made Wilsey wilt, but thrive.
In fact, next month, Wilsey will be presented with the ArtCare Award for Excellence in Civic Arts by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Art Dealers Association. In classic form, Wilsey shrugs off any talk of vindication. "I don’t need a vote of confidence," she tells San Francisco, "although I do appreciate [the award]." Despite the verbal dodge, it's hard not to see the award as a public affirmation of her leadership and influence by Mayor Ed Lee, who was quoted approvingly in the press release announcing the award, and by the City's Art Commission, on which Wilsey served under Mayors Brown and Newsom.
Thomas DeCaigny, the Cultural Affairs Director of the Commission, which manages the City's public art, said that Wilsey has helped raise $200,000 for the civic art collection and advised on policy during her time on the Commission and after. "She was one of the first patrons to host a house party for the commission," he says, which helped tap into the City's fine arts community. When asked whether the award reflected the Commission desire to give her a public show of support, he said, "the award was decided a long time ago and her contributions speak for themselves."
Wilsey had this to say: "I really doubt it that there was any lack of confidence in me from my board, the people at the museum, and all the nice people who write to me. I don’t need a vote of confidence, I see it as a tribute to being successful in serving the public."