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Nathalie Bondil, former director-general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, seen in March 2019.

Valerian Mazataud

Nathalie Bondil, who brought blockbuster shows devoted to Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and fashion designer Thierry Mugler to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is leaving after the board of directors announced on Monday it is immediately terminating her contract, which would have expired in a year.

In a statement released in French, the board said Bondil’s departure as director-general follows a report by the independent human-resources consultant Le Cabinet RH on the museum’s working environment, which some employees called “toxic.” Bondil, an international museum leader who has directed the Montreal museum since 2007, had tripled its visitor numbers and doubled its physical space, winning plaudits for both community outreach and popular exhibitions.

In an interview, board chair Michel de la Chenelière said the board commissioned the outside report after the museum’s union came forward with complaints it had not been able to resolve with management. The report was highly critical of the working environment in the museum’s curatorial department, citing poor relations between curators and with Bondil, he said.

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“It’s very sad,” he said. “She is a fantastic director and the museum is booming, but when you have a problem like that, you can’t tolerate it. It’s not the 1990s, it’s the 2020s.”

Bondil could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The statement also said the board had attempted to reach a compromise with Bondil in which she would work the last year of her contract under increased board supervision, but it called her “inflexible” on this issue.

Another area of contention was Bondil’s double-headed job description: She was both director and chief curator, roles that many large art museums split between two people, with one overseeing administration and the other planning exhibitions. Last week, the museum appointed curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais as head of the curatorial division in a move that, De la Chenelière explained, was intended to establish better communications between curators and the director. Desmarais, who has worked at the museum since 2014, is an art historian with a PhD from Yale, and the wife of Paul Desmarais III, grandson of the late Quebec industrialist Paul Desmarais. Although a museum press release last week quoted Bondil giving her full support to Desmarais’s appointment, De la Chenelière said she was not Bondil’s choice but rather the unanimous choice of the board.

Bondil, a native of France who trained at the prestigious Ecole du Louvre, joined the Montreal museum as chief curator in 2000 and was promoted to director in 2007. Under her leadership, the museum has stressed its role as a community centre for education and well-being, built several new wings and galleries, and pushed visitation to historic highs. Before COVID-19 closed institutions across the country, it was the most popular fine art museum in Canada, rivalling visitor numbers for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Bondil is also known as a clever curator, adept at creating populist shows such as last year’s exhibition devoted to Mugler, and more serious-minded shows such as a 2018 exhibit about African influences on Picasso into which she inserted a survey of Afro-Canadian art.

“I was shocked to get the news today about Nathalie’s departure,” said Vancouver collector Michael Audain, whose family foundation is funding an exhibition at the museum devoted to Jean-Paul Riopelle scheduled for the fall. “She had achieved such great things. It was prime example of how an art museum can open itself to the community and become a real centre for an extremely wide section of the population while also gaining international recognition. It’s very sad, after so many years service, to see her being given her walking papers.”

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