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Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.Valerian Mazataud

If you visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, you can gaze at many treasures, works painted by the likes of Rembrandt, Monet and Degas. Or you can try making your own masterpiece in a studio equipped with free art supplies where nobody is going to tell you that you aren’t the next Picasso.

Welcome to Nathalie Bondil’s museum. As public art galleries struggle to attract new visitors to institutions sometimes perceived as remote or elitist, Bondil is the dynamic French immigrant who has overseen a popular revolution at the MMFA. In the space of a decade as the museum’s director, she has thrown its doors open to the community, doubled its floor space and tripled its attendance.

“I love to drive a fast car … and I don’t play to lose,” she laughs, when asked for the secret to her success.

It’s an uncharacteristically personal statement from a professional more often found expounding enthusiastically on her cultural philosophy – art is a social intervener for fractious times – or boasting of MMFA wins. There’s the program that uses images from the collection to help school teachers build curriculum or the new art therapy work with people suffering from Alzheimer’s or eating disorders.

“I am absolutely convinced art and culture are key to our togetherness,” Bondil says. “How can we make bridges? The museum is a great place where you can address different cultures, where you can gather people, where there is this benevolent neutrality.” She is inspired by trends in biological and neurological research that suggest evolutionary purposes behind the human impulse toward art or measure its impact on our brains, and she speaks of the museum in utopian terms: “Our role is to offer the wider public this tool which could help you so much, could save a life.”

This can all sound wildly optimistic and potentially gimmicky – the MMFA captured headlines last fall with a pilot project in which doctors will prescribe museum visits for mental health – but the proof is in the pudding, and Bondil’s is laced with plump raisins. Since 2007, visitation at the museum has soared to 1.3 million from 440,000. That makes the MMFA the most-visited museum in Canada after the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a larger multidisciplinary institution whose drawing cards include dinosaurs. (In comparison, the Art Gallery of Ontario receives about a million visitors a year.)

As with the ROM, the MMFA has greatly enlarged its building: It opened the Bourgie concert hall in 2011, adding music to its programming, and the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace in 2016 to showcase more of the permanent collection, including the Hornsteins’ gift of 100 Old Master paintings. It has doubled its floorspace with such additions, yet it has had much less difficulty than the ROM raising attendance to fund larger premises.

“It’s remarkable,” museum consultant Gail Lord said. “Montreal is not the largest city in Canada and it’s not a particularly museum-going city; it’s a festival city. … She’s doing a brilliant job; she’s one of the leading art gallery directors in the world.”

A French citizen who grew up in Morocco, studied art at the École du Louvre and came to Canada as a young professional in 1999, the ebullient Bondil was appointed chief curator at the MMFA in 2000 and director in 2007. The director, who now has dual citizenship, has been widely recognized at home and abroad, earning membership in the orders of Canada and Quebec and France’s Order of Arts and Letters. Part of her success and the MMFA’s rising popularity can be traced to a series of blockbuster exhibitions that have featured brand-name artists such as Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder or show-stopping designer fashion from courtiers Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

But 300,000 visitors a year are also attracted by a slate of community programs that reach far beyond the familiar Saturday morning art classes or yoga-in-the-gallery sessions. In the Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy, which opened in 2016, the museum is offering art therapy for seniors, for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and eating disorders, and for teens with mental health issues or sensory impairments – and inviting researchers to measure the results. There are also programs that add art activities to breakfast clubs for hungry kids and offer them to men in homeless shelters. In total, the museum has teamed up with more than 450 school, community, academic and professional groups. Another initiative is the pilot project with Canada’s association of francophone doctors that lets them prescribe a free museum visit: so far 100 patients and their caregivers have shown up at the MMFA with an Rx.

“She has a concept of the museum as a community centre, not just a place where you go to quietly contemplate art, but a place where all sorts of things happen,” Vancouver art collector Michael Audain said. “I have been amazed at how she has built that up in Montreal. … She is bringing a very diverse community right into the museum.”

Bondil’s missionary zeal – and her ability as an outsider to sidestep any tensions between linguistic communities – has also boosted fundraising at the MMFA. Overturning some received wisdom on Quebec philanthropy, she has built new levels of support among francophones while maintaining old links with the anglophone and Jewish communities.

De la Chenelière, who made his fortune in French-language educational publishing, is a key supporter of the museum’s wellness initiatives. In 2012, he helped fund the new education studios in the Hornstein Pavilion, a project that gives pride of place to art therapy – a field art curators once regarded with something approaching disdain. Another important donor is businessman Pierre Bourgie, who helped underwrite a new wing for Canadian art named for his parents, as well leading the $42-million renovation of an old church into the new concert hall.

“We always thought, Quebec museums, they have the government, which is much more generous than in other provinces,” Audain said. “She got the French-Canadian business elite involved.”

Bondil is also reaching out to Indigenous communities: The museum has signed a memorandum with Avataq, the cultural organization for Quebec’s Inuit territory, Nunavik, to move its Montreal office into the museum in 2021. “It will be their embassy in the South,” said Bondil, who wants to add a degree in Indigenous studies to her credentials. The museum also plans to expand the EducArt program, which helps teachers build multidisciplinary curriculum based on images in the collection, to Quebec’s First Nations.

In all this flurry of community activity, it might be easy to lose sight of the museum’s exhibition programming – were it not for the oversized posters of a weird winged woman currently advertising the Thierry Mugler show, Couturissime, all over Montreal. Dressed in a body-hugging iridescent mermaid-tail gown with a massive eagle-feather headdress, she is modelling a couture collection the French designer created in the late 1990s. Couturissime, a large display of his dramatic costumes and provocative clothes, is typical of the way Bondil’s museum has lured big audiences.

Dating back to the directorship of Pierre Théberge in the 1980s and 90s, the MMFA has used its decorative arts mandate to program highly accessible shows: Théberge raised eyebrows with one devoted to automobile design in 1995. Alongside painting and sculpture, the MMFA collection has always included more functional objects, from Quebec church silver to modernist furniture, and Bondil has called the decorative arts an “open sesame” for audiences.

Couturissime is the second show devoted to a couturier, after the 2011 show devoted to Gaultier’s work that toured to a dozen other cities, a crucial financial boost for the MMFA and Bondil who is, through Louvre alumni, well-connected to Europe’s museum directors. Couturissime goes on to the Netherlands and Germany after it closes in Montreal, while the MMFA’s crowd-pleasing show of Calder’s mobiles has just opened in Australia.

Last year, Bondil imported a Picasso show initiated by Paris’s Musée du quai Branly, which juxtaposed the modernist’s paintings with the African sculptures and masks that inspired him. In Montreal, Bondil added contemporary African-American art to the mix and then borrowed a side exhibit of work by black Canadian artists from the ROM – to which she also added some Quebec artists. Similarly, Couturissime is accompanied by a showcase of 10 contemporary Quebec designers. The art community has been particularly impressed by this kind of cross-pollination.

“She is always trying to take the art and make it more inclusive,” Montreal art dealer Pierre-François Ouellette said. “There are some amazing openings being done, reaching out to people who have not been visible at museums.”

Of course, the very word “Picasso” sells tickets and that exhibition is perhaps the best example of Bondil’s ability to balance groundbreaking approaches to art with accessible names that draw crowds. Although she defends its scholarly credentials as the first retrospective of Mugler’s work, Couturissime, curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, is an old-fashioned blockbuster, making little attempt, for example, to address feminist critiques of high fashion. But Bondil insists that museum programming has to speak to large audiences and happily dismisses lots of curatorial ideas as best left to academic articles: “If you want to involve the whole institution, so much time and dedication, … it must be relevant and interesting to the public here in Montreal. I am not talking to my neighbour in art history at the Sorbonne.”

As society increasingly demands inclusiveness from what were once elite and hierarchical institutions, Bondil’s inventive approach to museum programming has garnered widespread attention from her colleagues: Her name was on the shortlist for the directorship of the Louvre in 2013 and often came up in last year’s discussions about who should lead the National Gallery of Canada. In both cases, she made it clear she wasn’t interested. When she first arrived in Montreal, she was delighted to discover that Canadian museums are owned by their communities – unlike French ones, which are owned by the state – and she relishes the lack of bureaucracy at the MMFA where a supportive board has allowed her to pursue projects well beyond the parameters of the traditional museum.

“I like my independence and this level of innovation is possible here. I like to go quick and to make the museum with a spirit of entrepreneurship,” she said. “I know exactly what I want.”

Right now, that means staying put: Bondil is too busy in Montreal to go anywhere else.

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