Museums USA

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco finally get a director

Amid reports of inner turmoil, Colin Bailey from the Frick Collection in New York to take over the helm of the De Young and Legion of Honor museums

The FAMSF board president Diane Wilsey with the new director Colin Bailey. Photo: Bill Zemanekby

After being without a director for 15 months, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) has announced that Colin B. Bailey, the veteran art historian, curator and administrator, will be taking over on 1 June. The interim has been a long search, marked with union troubles and the departure of key staff members from the museum. “It’s very thrilling to go beyond and take the helm of an institution that you admire, with its deep and vibrant collections,” says Bailey speaking by phone from New York, where he is currently the deputy director and chief curator at the Frick Collection. “It’s a challenge I’ve wanted to face for some years.”

Asked about what he sees as future direction for FAMSF, he cites the “track record” of the previous director John Buchanan, who died in 2011. “I’m very keen to maintain that,” says Bailey. “I want to explore the collections, and perhaps look into less familiar subjects, and have shows of those done in tandem with what are called blockbuster shows. I believe both types are valuable.”

Bailey’s appointment comes at a crucial time for the museum, which has reportedly suffered from internal turmoil, especially after the sudden firing in November of Lynn Orr, the curator of European art. She had been at the museum for 29 years and, according to a report in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, was given no specific reasons for the action and has now retained an attorney.

“Of course I’ve been attentive to the press,” Bailey says. “My first priority is to get to know the collection and my staff and my colleagues and my board. I want to encourage everyone to do the best they can.” Will it be a priority to fill the curatorial vacancy? “When I start, I’ll survey all the staff and identify what appointments should be made and in what order,” he says.

Bailey goes from helping to run an institution with a staff of 180 to one of 550 with two very different buildings and collections divided in two parts of the city. The stately Legion of Honor is modelled after a neo-classical French museum and houses classical European art; the de Young Museum is in a postmodern 2005 building designed by Herzog and de Meuron—copper-clad and fortress-like—and houses eclectic collections of art from Oceania, Africa and the Americas; costumes and textiles; and American art from the 17th century to the present.

The London-born Bailey has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University. Before joining the Frick as the chief curator in 2000, he was the deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery of Canada, and he has also worked at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

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