Philanthropist at center of San Francisco museum storm

Since January, visitors to the venerable Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco line up each morning to catch the newest star attraction, Vermeer's enigmatic painting "Girl With the Pearl Earring," on the first stop in its U.S. tour.

Yet Lynn Orr, the curator who helped arrange this exhibition coup, is not on hand to see its success. In November she was abruptly fired after 29 years, a departure that is one in a series of unsettling developments that have turned what are among the most popular museums west of the Mississippi into objects of contention and anxiety.

For 15 months, since the death of John Buchanan, their last director, the museums have been without a leader. Longtime staff members have been ousted. Unhappy employees have leaked internal emails to embarrass management.

"They are in a state of Orwellian dysfunction," Robert Flynn Johnson, their curator emeritus, said of the museums.

Several trustees, major donors, former board members and staff members blame the powerful board president, Diane Wilsey, an art collector, philanthropist and a hub of San Francisco society, for creating some of the problems.

No one disputes that Wilsey helped rescue the museums at a time of fiscal distress in the late 1990s, but her detractors assert that, since then, she has accumulated too much influence.

Wilsey, for example, has been criticized for using museum personnel to tend to her personal collection, and the Fine Art Museums' decision to exhibit her son's photography collection last summer was called nepotism.

"One person is in control," said Denise Fitch, a member of the museums' 44-person board of trustees who called herself a friend of two fired employees.

In an interview, Wilsey, who goes by the name Dede, denied any role in the staff firings and dismissed the notion that she held too much sway.

"No one person has authority to do anything," she said. "I serve at the will of the board, and all decisions are made through the staff. We are a public institution and we are totally transparent."

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