The de Young Museum, one of two museums that comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (image via TACD's Flickrstream)

The de Young Museum, one of two museums that comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (image via TACD’s Flickrstream)

For more than six months, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have been in the news nonstop. First there was the bitter union battle; then the sudden firing of European art curator Lynn Orr, who had been with the institution for 29 years, as well as that of 27-year photographer Joe McDonald, followed by the disbanding of the design department, which included Bill White, who had been a designer for the museums since 1977. Not long after that, there were scandals about higher-ups forcing museum staffers to lower the value of a painting to avoid customs fees, plus a story about Diane Wilsey, president of the museums’ board of trustees, using museum resources and personnel to handle a work from her personal collection. Then, finally, some good news, when the museum finally hired a new director — Colin Bailey, formerly of the Frick Collection — more than a year after the previous director died. But it didn’t last long, as bad news soon came again: a donor angry about the museums’ decision to deaccession works he had given and a lawsuit from Lynn Orr over her termination.

Robert Flynn Johnson, the museums’ curator emeritus, summed it up pretty well when he called the museums’ situation “a state of Orwellian dysfunction.” And that’s just the news that’s been reported.

“a state of Orwellian dysfunction”

As for what hasn’t been widely reported: the total number of layoffs and firings, to begin with. The museum wouldn’t give a final count when asked, but the list that Hyperallergic has been able to gather thus far is: Orr, McDonald, White and his assistant, Elizabeth Scott; Maria Reilly, a senior museum registrar for 12 years; Steve Brindmore, an employee of more than 20 years and head of technical services; and a handful of people in the development department — the exact number is unclear. Sources told me that Kevin Causey was reportedly hired as director of development in early summer 2012 but left unexpectedly a few months later, officially for “personal reasons” that the people I spoke with doubted were the real cause — not least because a few other development staffers (by various counts, anywhere from two to five) were fired on the same day.

Even estimating only two development department firings, that brings the total number of dismissals to eight people. Yet Ken Garcia, a spokesperson for the museums, denied that they had had “a string of layoffs” (the wording in my question). When I followed up to confirm that at least six people had been let go, he wrote, “It may be close to that, but it’s really lost in the fact that we probably hired four times as many people during that span.”

Then there are the reasons for the dismissals. When I talked to Orr, whose ability to speak on the record was constrained by, first, her arbitration with the museum and now her lawsuit, she explained:

I was told I was being fired for performance reasons, which is absolutely ludicrous. This happened on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It was at 4:30 in the afternoon, and after 29 years, I was told, ‘You’re fired as of this moment.’ It’s just amazingly sad and unpleasant. It’s like having an ugly and public divorce.


Lynn Orr (image via

Everyone I spoke with echoed Orr’s feeling that her firing for “performance reasons” made no sense. Maria Reilly, who’s also arbitrating with the museum over her dismissal, told me that she didn’t understand the logic behind her own firing either:

I was advised by the museums that I was for laid off economic reasons, as a cost-saving measure, and would be replaced by two associate registrars. My title was senior — still, two associate registrars and their benefits combined are more than my salary.

Reilly offered possible insight into the real reason, however. “The one thing to keep in mind about the union — Lynn, Joe McDonald, and myself have reason to believe we were let go in part because of union involvement and sympathy.” And in fact, Orr’s lawsuit alleges just that — that she was fired in part for attending a union demonstration.

For those who need a refresher, the museums were engaged in a bitter battle with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 last fall over the contracts of nearly 100 workers. I recently spoke at length with Stephen Lockwood, a former senior registrar at the museums alongside Reilly who left of his own volition this past February. Lockwood was the chief steward for the SEIU staff members during the dispute, and he told me:

We settled that contract in October, and they [management] were still refusing to print the contract and distribute it to people in February when I left. And that’s the kind of thing I saw, where they just drag things out, and it’s a very harsh thing to have to continually deal with. I had negotiated four or five contracts previously, and that last contract was the most difficult that I had ever dealt with the museum.

What’s more, in the aftermath of the settlement, the museums rolled out a thumbprint-scanning time-clock system for hourly employees. On the surface, that doesn’t sound too bad, and Garcia explained it clearly:

The time clock system we use for our hourly employees was introduced last October. We are required by state and federal law to keep accurate time records of our employees and in fact, the use of the new time system was negotiated with the union. Our time system is in keeping with the best practices for departments in the city and county of San Francisco.

A thumbprint-scanning time clock at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

A thumbprint-scanning time clock at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

But the reality seems more complicated. Only hourly workers are required to use the system, meaning mainly facilities staff, laborers, and the like, while management, curatorial, and conservators are exempt. One worker at the museums, who insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of losing his job, said that “morale here among workers has plummeted.” He went on:

The clock works only some of the time, and supervisors are having to adjust workers’ time sheets individually to more accurately account for folks’ hours. I would say that conditions are much worse here as result and any of my coworkers would agree. It’s obvious they don’t want to pay overtime to these employees, and it has become a convenient division of labor that is tearing this place apart.

Lockwood agreed that the time-clock system is frustrating for these staffers. “If everyone was doing the exact same thing, I don’t think you could really say too much about it,” he reasoned. “But the fact that they’re only making certain hourly people do it makes it feel like you’re being scrutinized more. We have hourly people who’ve been there for 10, 15, or longer years.”

Then again, even though they’re not necessarily being forced to clock in and out everyday, it sounds like plenty of other staff members feel as though they’re under intense scrutiny. Lockwood said that the climate at the museum influenced his decision to resign:

I don’t think the climate was very good at that time, particularly with the dismissal of Lynn Orr. I think curators and conservators and all those people on yearly contracts felt like they couldn’t really say anything anymore, because look at what happened to one of their colleagues. I think people felt the same way about our photographer Joe McDonald. A lot of people felt that was very unfair and that it sort of was a sign that maybe they shouldn’t say or do anything. Rightly or wrongly, I think people believed that there were people who were targeted for dismissal to set an example for other employees.

He also said that he felt the threat extended to his own job.

I was in fear that they could fire me, particularly after they “laid-off” Maria Reilly. I use those quotes since there was no valid budgetary or job performance information relating to her forced departure. Our boss targeted Maria for at least six months before it happened, with the knowledge and permission of other senior staff. And our boss, Therese Chen, bragged to other staff members on multiple occasions that she was going to get rid of Maria. After Maria was laid off in July or August 2012, I had reason to strongly believe that I would be next.

By December 2012, he had been with the museums for 17 years, and he decided it was time to move on. “I looked around and just really felt that the situation wasn’t improving,” he said. “I was thinking to myself that I didn’t want to be there another five years under the same situation.”

Lockwood described an extreme lack of communication between higher-ups and “the people who were doing the work.” But why management seems hell-bent on destroying the unions and penalizing their defenders is unclear. What’s more, all of this turmoil happened while the museums were without a director. Who’s been responsible for these decisions?

Members of SEIU Local 1021 with their inflatable rat last fall, when they were fighting with COFAM over their contract

Even with a director in place, the governance of the Fine Arts Museums is, in a word, complicated. The institution began with a gift to the city, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (FAMSF) are technically a charitable trust department of the city and county of San Francisco. FAMSF has 44 trustees and is responsible for the buildings, the art, security, and maintenance. According to an audit performed by the city and county board of supervisors last summer, the city also provides roughly 20 percent of the museums’ operating budget.

There are two more organizations involved: the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, which has 10 trustees and covers the endowment plus restricted funds, and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museum (COFAM), which handles operations and fundraising and has 51 trustees. COFAM is a private nonprofit, and the body that was fighting the SEIU last fall.

Last summer’s audit was revealing. It’s filled with fairly damning statements about the disorganization and lack of transparency at the museums. Regarding finances:

The Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees does not have a finance committee, and the COFAM finance committee does not formally present to the Board of Trustees. Furthermore, although COFAM oversees and provides most of the funding for the Fine Arts Museums’ operations, COFAM is also not documented as having presented to the Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Although the Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees meetings are public, COFAM meetings are not. Therefore, oversight of the Museums’ budget, financial audits, and facilities is not being conducted in a public or transparent manner.

And then this, regarding strategic planning (or the lack thereof):

[T]he Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees does not systematically review the Museums’ achievement against its five-year plan. [. . .] Since implementing the plan, the Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees has not systematically reviewed the five-year plan’s goals or the implementation of the specific action items, as evidenced by meeting minutes. The Board of Trustees’ by-laws do not address strategic planning, and the Board of Trustees has not initiated a new strategic planning process.

“The Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees,” the audit concludes, “does not have sufficient practices for overseeing the City’s assets.” The report includes a response from the museums attached to the end, in which the chief administrative and financial officer agrees to consider the recommendations within.

The Legion of Honor, the second museum that comprises the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (image via Omar Omar's Flickrstream)

The Legion of Honor, the second museum that comprises the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (image via Omar Omar’s Flickrstream)

Much of the blame for the tumult — in the press, at least — has been placed on the board of trustees, most prominently Diane Wilsey, the board president. Wilsey has served in that role for 14 years already, and continues to do so indefinitely after by-laws were changed four years ago. (The audit says that the Fine Arts Museums’ board “do[es] not consistently ensure diversity or opportunities for new members.”) But there’s no way to know if all directives are coming from her, and it seems somewhat unlikely that she would be calling every single shot. Is this a kind of class war, where the wealthy trustees of a private nonprofit are insistent upon breaking down the working-class unions? Or has a group of administrators taken advantage of the absence of a director and just decided to do as they please? There must be an explanation for what’s going on at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, but no one seems ready or willing to give it.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

3 replies on “What’s Going on at the SF Fine Arts Museums?”

  1. Elizabeth Scott (Etienne), the Exhibition Designer who was also laid off
    in February, is sitting front and center in your union picture there
    with the rat. She was a union member and was vocal (on tv and in the news) against the unreasonable contract the museums were trying to impose on its workers during the unnecessarily laborious contract negotiations last fall. Worth noting…

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