A Conversation with Diane B. Wilsey, President of the Board of Trustees and Colin B. Bailey, Director Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Q: Ms. Wilsey, in looking for a new director for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, you conducted an extensive international search. How do you feel now with Colin B. Bailey selected and a new era dawning for the Fine Arts Museums?
DBW: We’re absolutely thrilled because we finally found the exactly right person for this time in the history of the two institutions that make up the Fine Arts Museums—the de Young and the Legion of Honor. I’m delighted and can’t wait to see what Colin will do to make the Museums bigger, better, and more wonderful! I know he’s going to have a great time, and we’re going to have fun right along with him.
Q: Colin, you come to the Fine Arts Museums from one of the crown jewels of New York City’s many museums, the internationally respected Frick Collection, where you served as deputy director and chief curator. What made you decide to make the cross-country leap?
CBB: When I chaired the National Endowment for the Arts’ indemnity panel for insuring exhibitions, as I did for three years, I was simply amazed at the ambition and achievement of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. I was always wondering, How is it they’ve got Picasso? How is it they’re doing the Musée d’Orsay show? So coming here is something of a dream come true. I have long wanted to be the director of a museum, and particularly one that has collections, displays, programming, and an educational philosophy I feel comfortable with and admire. In a way, the Fine Arts Museums are the Met, MOMA, the Frick, and the Morgan all in one—and they serve a tremendously vibrant community. There’s such a commitment to the institution. I’m really excited to know there’s extraordinary support for the types of projects and directions I hope to introduce.
DBW: Colin is the person to really shape the Fine Arts Museums now. We’ve had a marvelous run as a great exhibition museum since the new de Young opened. I wanted it to be the most important exhibition museum west of the Potomac River, because I come from Washington, DC, and I think we achieved that. But after the tragic death of our previous director John E. Buchanan, Jr., we had to decide how to reinvent ourselves to get to the next level. The Board all agreed that the next level would be to raise our stature intellectually and build our curatorial strength while simultaneously playing to the wealth of our collections. That’s what we were looking for in a new director and it’s very fortunate for us that Colin was willing to accept the job. He’s exactly what we need.
CBB: From an exhibition point of view, it’s advantageous that the de Young and the Legion each have such distinct personalities. The art is presented so well . . . there’s an opportunity to do the larger blockbuster projects and the more focused and scholarly undertakings. We can offer both to the publics that we serve and provide different visitors with different experiences.
Q: The philosophical and strategic elements that were part of finding a new director are quite intriguing because the Fine Arts Museums’ Board has always found directors with both a solid focus on the arts and with other important attributes. Can you tell us, Ms. Wilsey, about the journey you undertook as you thought about your different directors?
DBW: Harry Parker was a builder and perfect for seeing the de Young through a very difficult time—you’ll recall it was heavily damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. He was great to work with as we managed all the different parts of that effort, dealing with the subcontractors, the architects, and so on. And, of course, he loved to do all the curatorial things that a director does. I, on the other hand, loved fundraising, working with the trustees, dealing with politics, and all the stuff he didn’t want to do. We were a perfect team and had a wonderful relationship.
Q: When Parker retired you had to find a new director. What were you looking for in his successor?
DBW: I knew we needed to have great exhibitions for the new de Young and John Buchanan was perfect for that. Our task at the time was to relaunch an institution that had been closed so we needed a showman, someone with an innate sense for connecting the public to the Museums. That’s something John did brilliantly. He had an amazing ability to drive attendance. Together we were sort of like Barnum and Bailey. And it worked.
Now, Colin embodies the qualities we have been looking for: executive management skills and the know-how to bring in a wide audience.
CBB: Let me say that, in this world we live in, curators who are committed to their art and want to work in museums also have to be engaged in management. They have to be able to navigate diverse relationships and cultivate donors. I was one of the inaugural fellows at the Center for Curatorial Leadership that was established by Agnes Gund and Elizabeth Easton, and every day I remember and apply lessons learned through those MBA courses. So I just want to say that, yes, the scholarship is vital, but running a museum well is also a profession requiring practical and real-world management experience.
Q: So how do things stand now at the Fine Arts Museums as Colin’s directorship begins?
DBW: I’m happy to say that the institution has never been in better shape than it is in now. We have a deputy director that we didn’t have before, and great leaders in every department. We’ve also shifted the Board over the last few years to bring in a new generation of young, energetic professionals, while keeping experienced members with institutional knowledge and long-term perspectives.
CBB: I do feel it’s an enormous gift. Anyone who takes the helm of this institution can sense there’s been this large change. And when you step into the Vermeer exhibition, you know that everyone is in place—you’re greeted properly, you’re directed carefully, and the show looks great. It’s a pleasurable experience from beginning to end. That wouldn’t be the case if the Museums were not up and running well.
Q: Colin, tell us a bit about the Vermeer show.
CBB: The Vermeer show is this magnificent selection of 17th century Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis in the Hague. San Francisco has the show in its largest iteration. It moves to Atlanta next, and then ends up at the Frick, so I’ll be rather sad not to be there. Although I planned it at the Frick and laid out how it will be displayed, I won’t be actually working there when it opens.
Q: Maybe Frick director Ian Wardropper will let you come back and visit.
CBB: I hope so!
Q: And the exhibition’s seminal work, of course, is?
CBB: It’s a marvelous painting by Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, that rightly is called “the Dutch Mona Lisa”—a painting that was sold for just two guilders in 1881, with a thirty-cent commission to the auction house. At the time Vermeer really wasn’t understood or known. Of course now, thanks in large part to American collectors like Frick and Morgan, Vermeer is the trophy, the great artist. Only 36 paintings by him are known and nearly all of them are in public collections. And this is perhaps one of his most enigmatic—a young woman in a turban, with a fabulous pearl earring that she probably could never have afforded. She’s dressed in exotic costume. And she turns to look at us. It’s not a portrait. It’s a character head called a “tronie,” and you feel you’re engaged with this real presence. It’s one of Vermeer’s most mysterious pictures. It draws people to it like a magnet. They simply want to experience this great work.
DBW: It’s wonderful seeing how much it mesmerizes people.
Q: Colin, what are your ambitions for the Fine Arts Museums?
CBB: It is a bit early to say too much and I have much to learn. When this became a possibility I immediately felt that I could take some of the connections and relationships that I have—along with a belief in exhibition programs that are dynamic, serious, and varied with opportunities for increasing scholarship and awareness—and use these attributes to advance the visual arts in San Francisco.
The de Young and the Legion each have distinctive attributes and together they provide both intimate and grand exhibition experiences. The Legion is more classically oriented and I’m most familiar with those collections. The European collections and the works on paper are very distinguished. When you look at any major show of Rembrandt, or Tiepolo, or Manet, or Georges de La Tour, the Fine Arts Museums are always a lender. One of the things that excites me is to further explore these collections and in the process make the Fine Arts Museums a more important participant in organizing and sharing some of these works through shows that we generate from the ground up.
The new de Young Museum . . . is so beautifully rendered. It is modern but when you step in you feel that you’re welcomed. The space is appropriate, warm. The galleries are all different. The American galleries are superbly classical. And then you can go to the exhibition galleries downstairs, which are immense and are fashioned so well.
Q: What’s interesting is how the dynamic between the Board president and a director can evolve. You, Ms. Wilsey, with your strengths in navigating through the arcana of San Francisco’s political establishment, your experience in fund-raising, and your long history with the Museums; and your facility, Colin, with the art historical, curatorial, and exhibition sides of the profession, as well as the fresh perspective you bring. It’s a very interesting basis for an evolving relationship.
DBW: I can’t wait to introduce Colin to all of our various constituents and friends because he garners such respect in the museum world. It gives us such credibility because he is so well known. The Fine Arts Museums are regarded as an encyclopedic institution and a great place for grand exhibitions, as you well know, but to be able to say that we have a scholar of such stature who is now running our Museums is really a great coup for us.
Q: Ms. Wilsey, what do you consider the biggest accomplishment of the Fine Arts Museums’ Board and staff?
DBW: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are ranked third nationally in membership and fourth in attendance. We are obviously a big success with the public and we make a very important contribution to the city of San Francisco, its economy, its civic life, and to the wider museum field. As to our biggest accomplishment of the past decade, I’d say it was building the marvelous de Young and the extraordinarily strong launch of a museum dedicated to exhibiting great art to diverse San Francisco audiences and our city’s visitors. The biggest goals for our future, with Colin at the helm, will be to focus on curatorial excellence and art historical relevance, and to continue our service to the community.
The best is yet to come.