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Fine Arts Museums hire Frick curator

originally posted by the SF Gate

In a move expected to boost San Francisco’s international art reputation, the board of the city’s beleaguered Fine Arts Museums on Wednesday approved the appointment of Colin Bailey, the deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, as its new director.

In addition to his work at the world-renowned Frick, Bailey has served at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. An expert on 18th and 19th century French painting, as well as an authority on Pierre Auguste Renoir, he has also organized exhibitions devoted to Gustav Klimt, Hans Memling and Rembrandt.

He starts June 1
“He’s a star,” said Dede Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF). “It’s time we had a leader who is really focused on the great collections within this museum.” She was interviewed before she made the announcement at a news conference in the Piazzoni Mural room of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, a conference which Bailey did not attend due to previous commitments.

Bailey, 57, takes over the long-vacant position on June 1. He replaces John Buchanan, who died from cancer in December 2011. Bailey, who has never been the director of a museum, has twice seen his candidacy for the directorship at the small, elegant Frick sidelined by the institution, which has a history of appointing directors from the outside.

Reached by telephone in New York, Bailey said that his first priority in the San Francisco job will be “to immerse myself. Of course, I’ve been closely monitoring radio interviews and news coverage of the museums. Museums are in some ways like families, regardless of size. The museums’ staff and board have done a tremendous job maintaining the programming and membership that John Buchanan did so much to advance. And of course we want morale to be as high as it should be.”

Strong background
Bailey brings an impeccable academic and curatorial background to the Fine Arts Museums – the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor – whose reputation for curatorial initiative has suffered in recent years.

There is labor unrest, and there have been summary firings of top curatorial talent, most prominently Lynn Orr, the curator of European Art. There are 549 employees between the two city-owned museums, of which 269 are city employees. The most recent budget to operate the museums is $54 million, of which $12 million comes from the city. Last year, the museums attracted 1.6 million visitors, including 1.2 million to the de Young.

“He will have to contend with a very difficult situation to help heal the many wounds at staff level and deal with a board that many think is close to a dysfunctional imperial dynasty,” said Tom Seligman, former FAMSF deputy director and director emeritus at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center.

Inspires confidence
Others in the art field who have long known Bailey voice confidence in his intellectual and administrative skills. Richard Feigen, the dean of Old Master painting dealers in New York, said in an e-mail, “Colin has been preparing for a directorship, so my guess is he will do well. … He has fine taste, knowledge and academic credentials. I think he was a good choice and can handle the delicate situation in San Francisco. Many people thought he would blow his stack when he didn’t get the Frick, but he didn’t, and kept his cool.”

A London native who is the youngest son of a small business owner, Bailey earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Oxford University, where his mentor was art historian Francis Haskell. He has won numerous honors over the years, including art history’s grandest award, the 2004 Mitchell Prize, for his book “Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris.”

Other publications include studies of individual paintings and periods represented in the Frick Collection and collections and masterpieces belonging to other major museums. His museum work also has included responsibility for millions of dollars annually in acquisition and exhibitions budgets.

Asked about his own future research, Bailey said, “For the moment, my own work is absolutely on hold. I want to throw myself into getting to know the collections, the staff and the program.” At the Frick, he said, “I’ve been very privileged to encourage my colleagues in all divisions to do their best, but I like nothing more than being in front of a single work in a gallery and speaking about it to curious visitors.”

13-month search
Bailey’s salary, which was not announced, is paid by an arrangement negotiated between the corporation that governs FAMSF and the city, which owns the museums. There will be no housing allowance.

Wilsey said there were eight finalists for the job, in a search that took 13 people 13 months.

“His knowledge of art is astounding,” Wilsey said, “and he is going to focus on our collections, which is important to me.”

Fundraising is also important to her, so important that she had earlier suggested that the job be split in two between a finance director and a curatorial director.

“I have some very bad ideas once in a while,” she said. “That was one of them.”

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