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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."

Wilsey's supporters agree that the image of her as all-powerful is off base. "We have a very robust, transparent and efficient board," said Carl Pascarella, another trustee.

With an annual budget of about $55 million, the Fine Arts Museums -- which consist of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park -- are jointly the largest public arts institution in the city.

They are run in a private-public partnership, with the city contributing 23 percent of the budget. In the past fiscal year they drew nearly 1.6 million visitors.

But inner turmoil has been building since December 2011, when Buchanan died, leaving the institution rudderless through bitter labor negotiations, according to former and current employees and board members.

"We need a director badly," said J. Burgess Jamieson, a former member of the board.

Not to worry, Wilsey said Thursday, explaining that the board planned to announce a new chief within two weeks. Many of the institution's supporters and staff say that the museums have suffered self-inflicted damage, however.

Within the past year, more than a half-dozen staff members say, they were forced out, including Orr, a respected curator who arranged the exhibit of the Vermeer and other Dutch masterpieces.

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She and several other discharged staffers said they felt that their support of the union that covers many museum employees played a role.

Last month Bill White, an exhibition designer for 36 years, and his associate, Elizabeth Scott Etienne, were dismissed as part of a move to eliminate the department.

Other museums depend primarily on guest designers, but Johnson said that the Fine Arts Museums had too many exhibitions to operate without an in-house design department. "It would be like a large hospital eliminating their radiology department," he said.

Several current employees said they had been ordered to refrain from discussing the director search even with one another. "No one, under any circumstances, should be sharing their speculations with anyone inside or outside the museums," a Feb. 20 memo to the staff stated.

Criticism has come from outside the institution as well. In June a city audit condemned the museums for eliminating term limits for the board president, a move championed by Wilsey, who has held the seat since 1998. The audit also noted that oversight of the "budget, financial audits and facilities is not being conducted in a public or transparent manner."

More recently, internal documents were sent anonymously to reporters and lawyers, suggesting that the museum, over the objections of some staff members, had changed the appraised value of a painting by Modigliani to $15,000 from $500,000 to avoid what it believed to be hefty customs fees.

Richard Benefield, the deputy director of the museums, said an internal review had concluded that "all parties acted with integrity." He said the appraisal was lowered because the painting had not yet been authenticated; it turned out, he said, that the shipper, not the museums, was required to pay a temporary customs fee.

Wilsey has long been a high-profile and sometimes controversial presence in San Francisco's cultural life. In 2005 her stepson, Sean Wilsey, wrote a memoir that described her as an "evil stepmother" who manipulated his father, San Francisco business leader Al Wilsey, into giving her his fortune. She responded at the time by excoriating the book as defamatory.

Yet even Wilsey's detractors concede that the de Young Museum might not exist without her efforts. After the building was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the city twice failed to pass bond measures to build a replacement. Wilsey stepped in and raised $190 million for a new structure, which opened to acclaim in 2005.

Harry S. Parker III, a former director of the museums, described Wilsey as the "motivating force" behind the museums' expansion. "She is extremely generous herself, and has lot of spunk, energy and determination," he said.

Wilsey also came under fire last summer when the de Young staged an exhibition of the photography collection owned by Trevor Traina, her son and ex-board member. Nancy Ewart of the San Francisco Chronicle, called it "the most blatant example of nepotism ever seen in San Francisco's checkered art history."

Documents leaked in recent weeks suggested museum staff had done work pertaining to Wilsey's personal art collection during museum hours. The code of ethics of the American Alliance of Museums says no one involved in the governing of an institution should use that position for personal gain, but other museum directors conceded that such assistance was not unusual.

Benefield called it "standard operating procedure" for museums to help major collectors with shipping and handling art.

Wilsey's response to the question was succinct: "I think I've been more than generous. Beyond generous."

She said the success of the museums spoke for itself, noting that their popularity was evidence that the community, even young people, have embraced them. "When I first came to San Francisco, the pickup place was the Safeway by the marina on Wednesday night," she said. "Now it's Friday night at the de Young."

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