“Your heart pangs a bit when you say goodbye to Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, and a great, great Renoir—and the whole quality of a small, jewel-like collection,” says Colin B. Bailey, reflecting on his departure from the Frick Collection in New York. Bailey was the Frick’s deputy director and chief curator for 13 years before leaving to become the new director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco earlier this month.
His appointment signals a more scholarly shift for the city-owned FAMSF, consisting of the de Young and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He replaces John Buchanan, who died of cancer in December 2011. Buchanan brought in blockbuster shows—among them “Picasso,” “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier,” and this year’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”—that attracted huge crowds to the new de Young, which opened in 2005, five years after the older, earthquake-damaged building closed.
“Our next step, we believed, was to focus on our own collections, to elevate ourselves intellectually, to have a leader who really was a scholar,” said Diane Wilsey, president of the museums’ board of trustees. “There would be no one better than Colin Bailey.”
Bailey, 57, is an affable man with neatly trimmed dark hair, expressively arched eyebrows, and a taste for dapper suits. He grew up in North London (where his father owned a barbershop) and earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University. In 1983, he was awarded a fellowship to the Getty Museum’s paintings department in Malibu. “That experience was so enjoyable and so transformative that I decided after that I wanted to go into museum work rather than academic work,” Bailey says.
Curatorial positions followed, at the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, allowing him to work with encyclopedic collections before he landed at the Frick in 2000. His writings on European art include books about Rembrandt, Renoir, Watteau, Fragonard, and Klimt.
The two institutions that make up the FAMSF are together the fourth most-visited museum in the United States. They are vastly different from each other, Bailey says. “The Legion of Honor is literally a replica of a building in Paris, the Hôtel de Salm. This is devoted to a collection not unlike the Frick: European art, painting, drawings, decorative arts from Fra Angelico to Picasso, and a Classical collection. And then the de Young is a fantastic modern building by Herzog & de Meuron, with this gorgeous copper-resin cladding and soaring spaces, galleries of American, African, Oceanic, Mexican art, modern and contemporary.”
During the 18-month interim without a director, the museums were the subject of controversy in the San Francisco press. Wilsey was accused of making curatorial decisions, using museum facilities to ship works from her private collection, and coaxing trustees into lifting term limits for her position as board president. Several senior staff members were let go, including curator of European art Lynn Orr. Wilsey denied that she had exercised too much authority or had a role in staff firings. Asked whether he planned to make any further staff changes, Bailey replied emphatically, “No. For the beginning, it’s really seeing who is in place, getting a chance to know them, getting a chance to see where there is support needed.”
For now, Bailey will give up writing and curating to focus on budgeting, fundraising, new acquisitions, and borrowing artworks or touring shows from outside institutions. As for the museums’ exhibitions curated in house, Bailey says, “I want to just allow curatorial excellence to run free.”
He also plans to work with Bay Area tech companies to get the museums’ Web presence “pumped up.” Bailey has some experience in this arena. In 2011, the Frick was one of the first institutions to participate in the Google Art Project, providing a super-high-resolution photograph of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1480) and 360-degree views of the museum’s historic rooms. The Frick also has its own virtual tours on its website, with Bailey as narrator.
“In museums, the primary experience must be in front of the work,” Bailey says, “but what I’ve learned from my time at the Frick is how important your website and your digital offerings are—and how they can really enhance an experience, either before or after.”
Trent Morse is an associate editor of ARTnews.