The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' public and acrimonious dispute with its former leader over workplace issues took a sharp turn on Friday, as the chair of the board stepped down and the dismissed director filed a lawsuit against the institution.
Nathalie Bondil, the long-time director of the gallery, was fired in July for overseeing what the board described as a toxic workplace. The board’s allegations are among the most high-profile Canadian examples of a wider cultural reckoning around workplace environments, and centres on a key cultural landmark in Quebec.
Michel de la Chenelière, who was the board chair during the recent turmoil, said on Friday he would leave the board and not seek a new term at the museum’s annual general meeting on Sept. 29. Montreal businessman Pierre Bourgie, who is a major donor to the MMFA and sat on the board from 2009 to 2018, has been reappointed and designated as de la Chenelière’s successor pending the results of the meeting.
Mr.Bourgie said he was aware of some concerns about the workplace during his previous stints on the board, but that he is more focused on hiring a new director and dealing with the financial challenges of COVID-19 than discussing the board’s recent issues.
“My mandate is to look in front of me and think of the future,” he said in an interview.
Bourgie said that, in part, he felt a duty to help the museum at this time because of the long association he and his family have had with the cultural institution, including involvement in the development and funding of Bourgie Hall, a concert venue attached to the gallery.
Also on Friday, Bondil filed a defamation lawsuit at the Superior Court of Quebec against the museum and its board of directors seeking $2-million in moral and punitive damages. The lawsuit alleges that the board members led a “smear campaign” against Bondil with their claims of a toxic work environment, and says the real reason for her termination was a dispute over the hiring of a senior manager.
Bondil oversaw the gallery during a period of rapid growth in size and attendance, and was named to the Order of Canada in 2016. However, behind the scenes, staff complained she had created a toxic work environment and took credit for her employees' ideas. The board ordered an independent workplace review last year.
One of the factors leading to the breakdown between the board and Bondil was over the selection of the new head of the curatorial division, who would act as a buffer between the director and some of her staff.
Bondil said she agreed to the creation of the new position, but disagreed with the board’s choice of candidate. The board wanted to promote curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais, whom Bondil had hired in 2014. Bondil said she favoured an outside candidate, who she said had more experience. The board overruled her and, a week later, terminated her contract.
Some governance experts have said it was inappropriate for the board to overrule its director on a hiring matter, while others have said it was appropriate because of the nature of the workplace complaints. The firing caused a stir in the province’s corporate and cultural community, with retired mining executive Pierre Lassonde describing the dismissal as “unconscionable.”
More than 100 current and former MMFA employees released a letter in August saying they supported the board’s actions and its description of events.
Bondil declined to comment on Friday about the board change and the lawsuit. “My main focus is to repair the huge damages of this defamatory campaign, not because of my past but because of my future,” she said.
The MMFA did not have any comment on the lawsuit, but said it would address it in “due course.”
The Quebec government ordered its own independent review into how the board of trustees handled the situation this summer. Spokesperson Louis-Julien Dufresne says Culture Minister Nathalie Roy has received the report and is studying it before making any further comment.