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The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Nathalie Bondil have settled the former director’s $2-million defamation lawsuit. In a conciliatory statement posted on the museum’s website, the two parties wish each other well but do not discuss the terms of the settlement.

Two months after she was fired from her job in July, 2020, after 13 years in the role, Bondil launched the lawsuit at the Superior Court of Quebec against the museum and its board of directors, seeking moral and punitive damages. She alleged that board members led a “smear campaign” against her, with claims of a toxic work environment, but that the real reason for her termination was a dispute over the hiring of a senior manager.

In 2019, the museum’s board had responded to employee complaints about working conditions by bringing in a human-resources consultant, who then made various recommendations for improvements. In its statement, the museum said: “Although the board disagreed with Ms. Bondil’s approach to managing this situation, the museum’s board of trustees was not otherwise calling into question her professionalism or her deep and sincere commitment to the museum. "

During her tenure, Bondil greatly expanded the museum’s buildings and increased its visitation to record levels through hugely popular exhibitions and innovative education programming. Her dismissal fuelled a bitter debate over the real reasons, pitting those convinced by her many successes against those critical of her management and curatorial style.

As that debate became increasingly public, the museum’s board broke its silence to say that Bondil had failed to co-operate with necessary changes and leaked confidential information to the press. She denied that she was the source of leaks and accused the museum of firing her because she had disagreed with the promotion of Mary-Dailey Desmarais, now the museum’s chief curator.

Philanthropists, business leaders and cultural workers all took sides, with some arguing the board had overstepped its powers in picking Desmarais for a new managerial position, and others saying her role as a buffer between Bondil and her own curatorial staff was desperately needed. Several prominent arts and business leaders came out in Bondil’s defence, while many others backed the board’s position – including more than 100 museum employees who signed a letter of support for Desmarais in her new role. Staffers had complained, first to their union in 2019 and to The Globe and Mail once the dispute became public in 2020, that planning and decision-making at the museum were chaotic, and that Bondil micromanaged their work.

The museum’s new press release, however, is at pains to recall the many achievements Bondil oversaw and states that although the 2019 report recommended many improvements, “Bondil was not personally the object of any allegation of harassment contained in the complaint and, like the board of trustees of the museum, wished to see the situation resolved.”

Bondil is quoted as saying: “While I was profoundly hurt, I know that it has also been difficult for all parties involved and in particular for the museum’s employees. I wish the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts nothing but success in the future: Thank you for all these extraordinary years.” (She declined by e-mail to offer any further comment.)

In September, 2020, a second report, this one commissioned by the Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy, found that there were governance problems at the museum, noting that the board’s own rules didn’t always jibe with provincial legislation covering the institution. But it also concluded that the original consultant’s report of 2019 had accurately reflected a troubled working environment.

Board chair Michel de la Chenelière resigned shortly before the government report came out, to be replaced by the current chair Pierre Bourgie. In October, 2020, the museum appointed Stéphane Aquin, a Quebecker who had been working at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, as its new director.

In his first year at the helm, Aquin has overseen a marked change in the museum’s programming and expansion. This is partly because the pandemic has cost it visitors and disrupted the international schedules of large touring exhibitions, but also partly because his own back-to-basics approach is less flashy than Bondil’s.

The museum has cancelled a new wing devoted to Quebec abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, letting the Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City pick up the project instead. And in the exhibition space where once it programmed dramatically staged international blockbusters, the museum is currently offering a selection of contemporary Canadian work from its own collection, curated by Desmarais.

Bondil is now working at the Institute de Monde Arabe in Paris, where she oversees collections and exhibitions.

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