"That Does It!" The Woman Who Built a Museum
Every successful city has somebody like Dede Wilsey, and if it's lucky it has several of them. Who is Dede Wilsey? A relentless volunteer fund-raiser who's the person most responsible for the rebuilding of the de Young art museum in San Francisco.
Safe to say that Wilsey isn't everyone's cup of tea. Her stepson published a memoir recently savaging her role in his life. (His stories are untrue, she says.) But she's clearly intense. "Dede is more dedicated and focused on things she cares about than almost anybody I've ever met," former Mayor Willie Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But it takes a tough person to build a great museum or any other major civic undertaking, and Wilsey is that. She's also determined to leave her mark on San Francisco, and she intends to do it with the new de Young.
Background: The old de Young Museum was a classical pile in Golden Gate Park that was severely damaged in the 1989 Bay Area earthquake. But even before it was damaged, the de Young was something of a mess. While it had some decent collections, it also had some bizarre ones. (One exhibit was a two-headed snake in a jar.) When Wilsey got involved in the museum rebuilding effort, she determined two things: The new building would change the way people thought about architecture in San Francisco, and the collection inside would be equally as challenging.
There were setbacks along the way, including two failed attempts to get voters to approve public funding for the museum. After the second defeat, she told the Chronicle, "I thought, 'That does it. This is chickens--t. I'm going to get this museum built.' " She spread museum plans on the floor of her house, wrote the names of potential donors on pink sticky notes and placed them on various galleries. "Kind of like a Reese Witherspoon movie," the newspaper noted.
Then she started calling the names on the notes. It helped that Wilsey herself was rich (she kicked in $10 million), but she was also terribly persuasive. She describes how she talked one investment firm CEO into giving far more than he intended. "I ratcheted him up," she told the Chronicle. "I sold him a $5 million gallery." (Translation: She persuaded him to donate $5 million in order to have his name on the gallery.) In the end, Wilsey raised more than $190 million of the $202 million needed to build the new museum.
Will the de Young have the impact she intends on San Francisco? Well, as the new building is opening to the public, it's being intensely debated. Some hate the modern design; others love it. (To listen to a National Public Radio report on the new museum, click here.) Not that Wilsey worries too much about the criticism. She grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, and said, "I lived in a city where everybody took potshots at everybody else, and I got sort of thick-skinned about it."
Thank goodness for San Francisco, Dede Wilsey brought her thick skin to the world of civic work. Posted 10/15/2005
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