Canada’s corporate and cultural leaders are taking sides in what is rapidly becoming the Bondil affair. At issue is whether the board of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts acted correctly when it moved promptly to terminate the contract of its general director Nathalie Bondil after an internal report made allegations of a toxic work environment.
As donors spoke out for and against, corporate governance activist Stephen Jarislowsky praised the museum’s board for taking control of a lax situation, writing in an opinion piece published in La Presse. On the other hand, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, retired mining executive Pierre Lassonde said: “She’s a star. What happened to her in my mind is unconscionable.”
As governments that fund the institution take note, these conflicting views are inflaming a dispute not merely over Ms. Bondil’s management but also over the museum’s populist direction.
After 13 years as general director during which she undertook multiple expansion projects and attendance tripled, Ms. Bondil was abruptly fired a year before her contract expired. The museum’s board of trustees, led by Montreal educational publisher Michel de la Chenelière, released a statement saying that an independent human resources report, triggered by union complaints and departures of key staffers, had found unacceptable working conditions at the museum, but not providing any details. In a second statement Monday, the board rejected calls to release the confidential report publicly, but repeated that it uncovered problems with Ms. Bondil’s management style and a deteriorating working environment.
In an interview with The Globe last week, Ms. Bondil said her mistake was overlooking a problem staffer who was driving subordinates too hard. But she attributed her firing to her failure to back the board’s choice for a new director of curatorial affairs, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, a Yale-trained art historian who has worked at the museum since 2014 and is a member of the Desmarais family, long-time patrons of the museum.
Some MMFA donors have given credence to the board’s version of events and in his Monday article Mr. Jarislowsky argued the board was finally providing the oversight that was its duty rather than letting Ms. Bondil run the show unsupervised.
On the other hand, Mr. Lassonde, another donor, questioned why the board was making decisions, such as appointing the curatorial director, that would normally be left to a director.
“I don’t have a clue about the internal reports but the governance is totally lacking when a board of directors takes over the functions of a director. That’s deplorable in a museum funded by the province and the federal government,” he said.
The Desmarais family itself appears divided over the situation: Although Ms. Bondil’s failure to back Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s promotion seems to have been her downfall, André Desmarais and France Chrétien Desmarais, the curator’s uncle- and aunt-in-law, have both made statements supportive of Ms. Bondil to the Quebec press.
The government is also watching. Simon Brault, chair of the Canada Council, said Tuesday that his organization is placing the museum on “concerned status,” an administrative designation for organizations that are experiencing instability. The status, applied because of “a very public crisis” and “issues related to organizational health, leadership, governance and HR management,” means the museum will have extra reporting requirements but will not necessarily see any reduction to its $450,000 annual Canada Council grant. Mr. Brault said the decision was due to internal policies and unrelated to Ms. Bondil’s continuing position as vice-chair of the council. Meanwhile, the province of Quebec, which provides the bulk of the museum’s public funding, has ordered its own independent report into the situation.
Ms. Bondil’s critics decry her reliance on a string of populist exhibitions, many of them devoted to big-name fashion designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent and Thierry Mugler, to pump attendance. Mr. Jarislowsky complained of a lack of attention to Canadian art and Montreal art dealer René Blouin agreed, saying building campaigns and elaborately designed blockbusters had taken the place of researching and exhibiting the permanent collection.
“I don’t think that Canadian art or Quebec art interested Mme. Bondil,” he said, adding that the job of contemporary curator had become a revolving door because of the neglect for that area.
The museum is set to make a large gesture toward Canadian art this year as plans for a major retrospective of Jean-Paul Riopelle that will argue the great Quebec abstractionist, who built his career in Paris, was inspired by the Canadian landscape and Indigenous traditions. That show will go ahead, however a collaboration with the Riopelle Foundation to build a new Riopelle wing to open in 2023 is now in doubt.
“The Foundation has not taken a position on whether we are proceeding. …. We could possibly pursue other alternatives, but we haven’t chosen yet,” said Vancouver art collector and foundation chair Michael Audain. He added that the foundation is waiting to receive more information from the museum and see the report commissioned by Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy.
Still, from English Canada, Mr. Audain views the heated controversy over Ms. Bondil’s firing with a certain wistfulness.
“I can’t imagine if a museum director in Toronto was dismissed, cultural ministers in other countries expressing an opinion,” Mr. Audain said, referring to French arts administrators who have decried their colleague’s firing in the international press. “Quebec is different: I applaud the seriousness with which they take their culture.”