A group of more than 100 current and former employees of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has released a letter supporting the dismissal of former director Nathalie Bondil, alleging she created chaos within the workplace and took credit for subordinates’ ideas.
The letter, issued late Monday, backed the decision of the board of trustees, who ousted Ms. Bondil last month after a third-party firm hired by the board alleged she had created a toxic work environment. Ms. Bondil and her allies, however, say the dismissal stemmed from a disagreement over who to hire for a senior role at the museum.
Since then, the dismissal of the well-connected museum director has become a serious debate in Canada’s visual arts world, with major donors, governance experts and international art leaders weighing in on whether the board made the right call. The Quebec government has even hired its own independent firm to investigate the circumstances.
Anne Grace, curator of modern art at the MMFA and one of the organizers of the letter, said it wasn’t easy for staff members to speak publicly. But, she said, the debate has become so heated it has made it difficult for them to do their jobs.
“We have wanted to be discreet, we have wanted to take the high road through all of this controversy,” Ms. Grace said in an interview. “But at a certain point we wanted to rectify a lot of misinformation.”
Ms. Bondil’s supporters point to her track record of doubling the gallery’s floor space and tripling its attendance since she took over in 2007. She won national and international recognition, including an investment in the Order of Canada in 2016.
When reports began to surface in the Quebec press last month about issues with Ms. Bondil’s management, provincial Culture Minister Nathalie Roy declared: “The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is Nathalie Bondil!”
But behind the scenes, staff say in the letter, conditions had deteriorated in recent years. The letter says Ms. Bondil largely rejected her staff’s ideas, and took credit for those she did accept. The letter also said incidents of harassment and intimidation were “daily occurrences.”
Ms. Grace said that many staff members took offence to Ms. Roy’s characterization. “An institution is more than just a person who has the high-profile position of director,” she said.
The letter did not provide specific examples of the allegations. Ms. Grace said the group wanted to protect each other’s privacy and that, as far as she knew, those who had shared their experiences with the independent human resources firm were bound by confidentiality agreements.
Ms. Bondil did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on the letter. In a previous interview with The Globe and Mail, she said that difficulties arose at the museum during a stressful period leading up to the much-delayed 2019 launch of the One World galleries, a suite devoted to non-Western art and archeological objects.
One staffer was driving installers too hard, she said. When the museum’s board hired an outside consultant to report on working conditions, she said she agreed to its recommendations, including working to improve relations with a “problem employee.”
Ms. Bondil held the titles of director and chief curator, which is unusual for comparable art galleries. Ms. Bondil said she was stretched too thinly at the rapidly expanding museum and heartily agreed with the board’s decision to hire a new curatorial director to share the load. That idea came from the outside consultant the board had hired to look into workplace issues.
Ms. Bondil said her dismissal was the result of a disagreement with the board over who to hire as the lead curator. Ms. Bondil said she disagreed with the board’s choice of Mary-Dailey Desmarais for the job because she wanted someone with more experience in the senior role, although she said Ms. Desmarais was a capable curator.
Ms. Grace said Ms. Desmarais was supported by her colleagues at the museum, who signed a public letter last month welcoming her appointment. Ms. Desmarais, who is part of the wealthy Quebec family that is prominent in corporate and cultural circles in the province, was first hired by the museum in a junior role in 2014.
“Yes, she’s a Desmarais,” Ms. Grace said, “but for us she’s a very well-educated, well-respected colleague who we felt was very capable to take on her position.”
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