Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2006

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Diane (Dede) Buchanan Wilsey ´65



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Diane (Dede) Buchanan Wilsey ´65

Diane (Dede) Buchanan Wilsey ´65
Wilsey inside the M.H. de Young Museum.

Saving a San Francisco landmark

By Mary Howard


Dede Buchanan Wilsey ’65 is a woman who will not take no for an answer. President of the board of the M.H. de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, she spearheaded a $190 million campaign for the landmark museum’s rebuilding. The structure was damaged beyond repair by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and voters in San Francisco twice turned down bond issues to rebuild it. Taking matters into her own hands, Wilsey raised the money for the city-owned building from private donors (contributing $10 million herself) and hired celebrated Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, for the design. The de Young campaign is the second largest privately funded museum project in the country, after New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Once the most heavily visited museum in San Francisco — with collections of European tapestries, American Impressionist paintings and Oceanic art — the de Young appeared doomed without public funding. But Wilsey saw differently.

“If one person should get credit for this whole process, it is Dede,” says architect deMeuron. “She made this possible. And I’m not just speaking of the money. Through all those years, and those difficult times, it was her belief in the project that held everything together.”

In addition to fundraising and attending many planning and zoning meetings into the wee hours of the morning, the dynamic Wilsey lobbied politicians, commissioned new art and even chose Italian stone flooring that would be easy on high-heeled feet.

At the de Young reopening on October 15, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke at the event, commending Wilsey for making “the dream of a new de Young in the Park a reality.”

Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown says of Wilsey, “Dede is more dedicated and focused on things she cares about than almost anybody I’ve ever met.” In its Christmas edition, the San Francisco Chronicle named Wilsey the city’s “MVP” in the Arts for her work on the de Young. The newspaper said, “Wilsey, in 2005, was the emblem for the deep and generous community of the people who sustain the region’s cultural vibrancy behind the scenes.”

The 300,000-square-foot building has a narrow tower at one end and is entirely clad in copper, which will fade to a greenish patina in about five years. Its 7,200 panels are pierced with computer-generated patterns that simulate the play of light through the trees at its site in Golden Gate Park. Newsweek called the building “smashingly original” and said it puts San Francisco “on the map for any serious lover of 21st-century design.”

On the campaign’s success, Wilsey says, “If I don’t love the project, I can’t sell it. If I love the project, I can do it and do it and do it. And I really loved this project.”

A trustee emeritus of CC, Wilsey received an honorary degree from the College in 2003. She is the daughter of Ruth Hale Buchanan ’39 and the mother of Trevor (a dot-com entrepreneur) and Todd Traina ’91 (a film producer). Her husband, Alfred Wilsey, passed away in 2002.


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