The Canadian art world is reacting with delight to the news that the troubled Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has found a new leader. The MMFA announced Thursday that it is appointing Stéphane Aquin as its director, repatriating the Quebec curator from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. He replaces Nathalie Bondil, the charismatic director and chief curator fired by the MMFA board last July in a move that ignited a firestorm of cultural controversy.
Aquin, who will start next month, has served for five years as chief curator at the Hirshhorn, the modern and contemporary art collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Prior to that he worked at the MMFA as curator of contemporary art for seven years.
“Stéphane is a bit of a polymath with broad interests, he’s well read, and most importantly, he loves art,” said Calgary art dealer Yves Trépanier, praising the appointment. “I’m pleased because he’s Canadian and he has international experience, which is necessary these days.”
Montreal art dealer René Blouin agreed, saying: “Stéphane was educated both in America and in Europe. Therefore he has developed a very rich and uncommon approach to culture and to arts. It fits the collections of the MMFA well.” Blouin also pointed to Aquin’s background working as an art critic in the 1990s as evidence of his understanding of the Montreal scene, his enthusiasm for art and his connections to individual artists. “He knows creation from the seeds in the ground.”
Aquin, a native of Montreal who grew up in the United States and Switzerland, has a Masters in art history from the University of Montreal. He worked briefly at the MMFA in the early 1990s, collaborating on the new Jean-Noël-Desmarais Pavilion that greatly expanded the museum’s footprint on Sherbrooke Street. He then worked as a critic for the newspaper Le Devoir and the Montreal entertainment weekly Voir before rejoining the MMFA, where he organized more than 40 shows devoted to Canadian and international artists.
“It is an immense honour to take over the direction of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an institution I know and love, and a privilege to be able to serve at this important moment in its history,” Aquin said in a statement released by the MMFA. “I am very much looking forward to working again with the museum’s fantastic teams, who have contributed to its reputation for excellence for many years.”
His appointment is one of several moves that may put to rest the controversy over Bondil’s departure. The former director is suing the museum’s board of directors for defaming her during the public dispute, while both the Quebec government and the MMFA itself are considering recommendations to overhaul the museum’s governance.