During the nearly 14 years that Nathalie Bondil ran the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, it seemed that the French-bred and Louvre-trained director of the city’s leading cultural institution could do no wrong. Hailed globally for sparking a renaissance at the MMFA, doubling its square-footage and tripling its annual visitor count, Ms. Bondil was arguably the most exciting addition to Montreal’s rich cultural scene in decades.
Under her leadership, the MMFA shed its stuffy reputation and became a magnet for locals and tourists alike. The Dale Chihuly glass sculpture installed outside the MMFA’s original beaux-arts pavilion on Sherbrooke Street in 2013, with its more than 1,300 serpentine arms representing the sun’s rays, was emblematic of Ms. Bondil’s magic touch. It served as an irresistible invitation to passers-by to come on in.
“I have all the admiration in the world for Nathalie Bondil and our teams for putting together exhibitions that are ever-more bold, relevant and multidisciplinary,” Jacques Parisien, then chairman of the museum’s board of directors, wrote in the MMFA’s 2018-19 annual report. “Thanks to their vision, the MMFA continues to make Montreal shine far beyond its borders.”
In 2018, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development singled out the MMFA in a case study on its contribution to the local community. The MMFA, the OECD concluded, “especially shines in the areas, firstly, of inclusion, health, and well-being, followed by cultural development, education, and creativity, and finally, economic development and innovation.” The educational and art therapy programs introduced by Ms. Bondil demonstrated her commitment to social progress as much as cultural success.
This explains why Ms. Bondil’s unceremonious firing in July struck many in Montreal’s cultural and business circles as profoundly unjust. The board’s accusation that Ms. Bondil had been responsible for creating a “toxic” work environment among the museum’s employees came as news to journalists who had been covering the MMFA for years.
A report commissioned by Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy after Ms. Bondil’s firing found that “the problem of the workplace climate was anything but superficial.” But it concluded that Ms. Bondil’s main fault lay in failing to rein in a few individuals who worked under her. The heavily redacted report by University of Quebec at Montreal management professor Daniel Beaupré also suggested Ms. Bondil was not given sufficient time to implement the recommendations of a consultant’s study to fix the problem. That study suggested splitting Ms. Bondil’s job in two with the appointment of a chief curator to reduce the 53-year-old director’s superhuman workload.
Last month, Ms. Bondil launched a $2-million wrongful dismissal suit against the museum, alleging that the board led by Michel de la Chenelière used the pretext of a toxic work climate to “conceal the true motive” for her firing. The latter, according to Ms. Bondil’s lawsuit, involved her refusal to publicly endorse the nomination of Mary-Dailey Desmarais as chief curator. Ms. Bondil believed Ms. Desmarais’s “lack of experience” and “junior profile” made her unsuitable for such a senior post. The board demurred and turfed Ms. Bondil.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. But the handling of Ms. Bondil’s firing and Ms. Desmarais’s appointment underscore the urgent need for a governance overhaul at the MMFA. Mr. de la Chenelière, who had been a large donor to the museum, stepped down as chairman in September and was defeated in a bid for a regular board seat at the MMFA’s annual meeting a few days later. But his successor as chairman, Pierre Bourgie, the heir to his family’s funeral home fortune, faces many of the same questions regarding potential conflicts between his fiduciary duties as chairman and personal interests as a large donor.
Ms. Desmarais’s appointment has raised inevitable questions about whether her family ties explained Mr. de la Chenelière’s insistence that she get the top curatorial job over Ms. Bondil’s objections. The Desmarais family has wielded extraordinary influence over the museum’s affairs for several decades, owing in part to the family’s outsized donations, the MMFA’s unique legal status under 1972 provincial legislation and its antiquated governance structure. Several board members have links to the family. Mr. Parisien serves on several boards of directors within the Desmarais’s Power Corp. of Canada empire, and MMFA director Serge Joyal manages Power’s massive art collection. And though the MMFA board includes 21 members, control appears to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of them.
Last week, the MMFA board launched a review of the museum’s governance structure led by former Le Devoir publisher Lise Bissonnette and retired corporate lawyer Pierre Raymond. The move appears to be aimed at influencing legislation that Ms. Roy, the culture minister, has promised to table to bring the MMFA under tighter provincial control.
It is unfortunate that Ms. Bondil’s tenure has ended so ingloriously. She deserved better and, if she ends up leaving Montreal, the city whose museum she put on the map will long mourn her departure.
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