The board of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts tried to turn the page on controversy Tuesday – only to find itself rebuked by the museum’s membership.
Outgoing board chair Michel de la Chenelière, the philanthropist who was instrumental in firing director Nathalie Bondil, lost his seat at the annual general meeting. The membership elected three of four independent candidates, all of them women, who were challenging the board’s official nominees. One of those board-approved nominees was de la Chenelière, who was stepping down as chair but seeking to keep a seat.
The museum has been mired in controversy since the board fired Bondil in July, citing a dysfunctional working environment. Bondil’s supporters have attempted to turn her dismissal into an issue of governance suggesting the board was meddling inappropriately, while both the board and museum staff have said that the workplace situation was untenable. A Quebec government report that was filed with the National Assembly last week found that staff concerns about the work environment were legitimate and serious, but also found that rules covering the museum’s governance needed to be updated.
At the meeting, held virtually, museum members voted for four seats that were up for renewal on the 20-member board. The board’s nominating committee had put forward three incumbents, including de la Chenelière, and one new candidate. Only one of them, Sylvie Demers, who has sat on the board since 2018, won a seat. The other three seats went to Montreal lawyer and AI advocate Valentine Goddard, governance expert Caroline Codsi and art historian Claudette Hould. The fourth candidate, lawyer and museologist Lydie Olga Ntap, did not win a seat.
“It was perceived as a battle for and against Nathalie Bondil. I have made it clear that is not why I was in the race,” Goddard said in an interview, adding she was surprised the three won. “We are going into this with a love of the museum and a love of art. This is a temporary crisis. It’s important to reassure employees who might have been in an uncomfortable environment that we are coming in with solutions, and to reassure the other board members that we are going to collaborate.” She also expressed sorrow that Ntap did not get a seat but predicted she would join the board in the future. The government report called for more diversity on the board; Ntap, who is Black, was the only non-white candidate in the election.
Introducing the meeting in French, de la Chenelière had said: “It’s time to turn the page, that’s why with serenity I have decided not to run for another term [as chair] and with a feeling of duty done, hand the torch to Pierre Bourgie.” Bourgie, another board member and one of the museum’s major donors, is expected to be confirmed as the board’s president at its next meeting. De la Chenelière did not immediately respond to a request for further comment Tuesday but before he lost his seat he had promised that he would still be involved in the museum he loved.
The meeting concluded with numerous questions from members about the nomination process, complaints about online voting and queries about Bondil’s departure. One member asked whether the working environment could really have been that bad; another asked why the board hadn’t fired Bondil sooner. Organizers, who had sorted questions into batches, pointed to the government report and its finding that the board had acted in good faith to protect employees.