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News / July 13, 2020

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Dismisses Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil [UPDATED]

Bondil’s contract was terminated July 13 following employee complaints and a board conflict. This recap of related media coverage starts on that day, with updates appended for July 14, 16 and 20
Visitors at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. Photo: François LeClair, MMFA. Visitors at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. Photo: François LeClair, MMFA.

ORIGINAL POST (Monday, July 13, late afternoon): The board of directors of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has terminated the contract of Nathalie Bondil as director and chief curator of the museum.

This decision is effective today, says a release issued by the museum early this afternoon.

Bondil first joined the museum as a curator in 1999 and became its director in 2007. She is also vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Canada’s largest public funding agency.

Today’s museum release cites a “toxic” work environment and “several departures of key employees” over the last year—as well as an external evaluation of the museum’s internal climate and what it calls Bondil’s “inflexibility” in finding a solution—as being factors in the board’s decision.

The decision also follows a week of public controversy, reported in Quebec media, regarding the situation at the museum.

The public controversy sprung from media coverage not only of the work environment complaints the board cites in today’s release, but also of a hiring decision made by the board against Bondil’s advice last week.

On July 6, the museum issued a release stating that Mary-Dailey Desmarais had been appointed director of the curatorial division there. First hired at the museum as an associate curator in 2014, and progressing to more senior positions after that, Desmarais is part of a family of influential patrons and art collectors; one of the museum’s major pavilions is named after this same family.

On July 9, Le Devoir reported that, according to internal documents obtained by reporters, Mary-Dailey Desmarais had actually been ranked fourth for that director of curatorial division job.

“The candidate ranked first obtained a near-perfect score (175 points out of 180),” Le Devoir reported, “far ahead of Mrs. Desmarais (97.5 points).”

According to Le Devoir on July 9, documents showed that Bondil had pushed for the first-ranked candidate to be hired, and for an adjunct position to be created for Desmarais.

Instead, the human resources committee had advanced Desmarais for the job, a move the board of directors approved unanimously.

On July 10, in a follow-up story, Le Devoir said it had obtained documents relating to the “toxic” work environment at the museum and how Bondil’s position had been made “more fragile” as a result of investigations into that environment. It also reported that the new director of curatorial division job had been created in part to address some of those workplace issues.

On July 12, La Presse reported that Bondil had rejected a proposal by the board that her job functions and responsibilities be limited, with full pay, until the end of her contract on June 29, 2021—and that she would leave at the end of that contract.

Among the voices weighing in on the controversy over the past week on French media was Quebec culture minister Nathalie Roy, who told Le Devoir late last week that she was “flabbergasted” Bondil might lose her job. That outlet quotes Roy as saying “The MMFA is Nathalie Bondil!”

Also commenting to La Presse recently was Pierre Lassonde, prominent art collector, patron and chair of the board of the Canada Council. Lassonde spoke about the impact of the controversy on his previously announced plans, along with collectors and patrons Michael Audain and André Desmarais, to co-create a $20-million Jean Paul Riopelle wing at the MMFA.

“Ms. Bondil was an inspiration for the project,” Lassonde told La Presse. If the Riopelle wing wasn’t realized, Lassonde said it “would be a great loss for the city [of Montreal] and for the Province of Quebec.” He added: “I don’t know what’s happening at the board level of the MMFA, but in my opinion, there’s a lack of governance somewhere.”

In his own statement in today’s MMFA release, which stated that work problems at the museum have been apparent since at least last year, the museum’s board chair made his case for Bondil’s immediate dismissal.

“Our primary responsibility as members of the board of directors, and based on recognized principles of good governance, is to ensure respect for the culture and organizational values of this institution which has been the pride of Montrealers and Quebecers for 160 years,” said Michel de la Chenelière, chair of the board of the MMFA. “It was therefore our duty to shed light on the various rumours circulating inside and outside the Museum. Given the gravity of the facts reported, our commitment to the employees who convey the Museum’s values on a daily basis was unequivocal.”

UPDATE (Tuesday, July 14, 4:36 p.m.): Further reporting by other media throughout the day on Tuesday has brought more information and perspective to light.

“A dozen museum employees and ex-employees who have spoken to La Presse…describe an unhealthy atmosphere at the MMFA, as well as a regime of fear…exacerbated by the authoritarian management style of the management team,” La Presse reports, adding that the decision to terminate Bondil’s contract comes as a result of an external audit of the museum’s workplace culture  that began in October 2019.

La Presse and Le Devoir also have reaffirmed that MMFA union representatives had filed grievances in relation to this matter and urged the board of directors to take action.

Marie-Claude Saia, president of the employee union at the museum, told La Presse via email that “In the last few years, there have been several reports on the part of unionized employees indicating a very real malaise.”

Michel de la Chenelière, president of the board of directors, gave interviews to several major media outlets about the decision to terminate Bondil’s role due to workplace climate concerns.

“It’s very sad,” de la Chenelière told the Globe and Mail about the situation. “She [Bondil] 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.”

This morning on CBC Radio-Canada, Nathalie Bondil contended the allegation of a “toxic” workplace at the MMFA was “a lie meant to cover up irregularities in recruitment…to mask other governance problems.”

Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy, who had previously expressed disbelief at the prospect of Bondil’s forced departure, told CBC Radio-Canada that “The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has its own governance structure, and the Quebec government does not interfere in its internal management. It’s still a hard blow for the museum,” though, Roy said.

UPDATE (Thursday, July 16, 12:58 p.m.): Other developments and media analysis about Bondil’s dismissal and Dailey-Desmarais’s promotion continued on Wednesday.

On the afternoon of July 15, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts issued a release stating that members of the museum’s curatorial division unanimously support the selection of Mary-Dailey Desmarais as director of the curatorial division.

“We feel strongly that Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s outstanding educational background—a PhD in Art History from Yale University—coupled with her experience as curator at the Museum, will make her a valued and trustworthy director of the curatorial team,” part of their statement said.

The declaration was signed by Iris Amizlev, curator of intercultural arts; Jacques Des Rochers, curator of Quebec and Canadian art (before 1945); John Fossey, emeritus curator, Mediterranean archaeology; Richard Gagnier, head of conservation; Anne Grace, curator of Modern art; Hilliard Goldfarb, senior curator – collections and curator of Old Masters; Sébastien Hart, head of publishing; Erell Hubert, curator of pre-Columbian art; Sylvie Lacerte, curator of Quebec and Canadian contemporary art; Jennifer Laurent, curator of Modern and contemporary decorative arts; and Laura Vigo, curator of Asian art.

Elsewhere, a petition of members of the museum is asking that an external audit be done. “By Wednesday evening, more than 2,400 people had signed an online petition requesting a special assembly for members of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to learn more about the process that led to the sacking of Nathalie Bondil as director general and chief curator on Monday,” the Montreal Gazette reports.

The petition was created by Thomas Bastien, a member of the museum who, until February 2020, was director of education and wellness at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Bastien told the Gazette he is concerned about process and transparency.

“Museum regulations provide for a special assembly if a request is made by a minimum of 100 members,” theGazette reports. “Museum media relations officer Maude Béland said Wednesday that ‘the board is studying the petition as we speak.’”

In La Presse, art critic René Viau wrote an opinion piece Wednesday criticizing Bondil’s approach to exhibition programming as “exploiting middle-class fantasies” and neglecting Canadian and Quebecois artists. “As long as she was at the helm, I never visited any [MBAM] exhibition that was truly interesting and that could be compared to those of large international museums,” Viau states.

UPDATE (Thursday, July 16, 8:54 p.m.): Thursday afternoon, more events unfolded in this story.

For one, Quebec’s Minister of Culture and Communications Nathalie Roy ordered an independent firm to review the management of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Roy’s statement says that she asked twice of late to see a workplace review directly related to Bondil’s dismissal, and that the board of governors would not provide them.

In a release soon after that announcement, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts affirmed it would cooperate fully with Roy’s directive and with any external firm hired for the review.

CBC Montreal provides a good overview of the situation late Thursday afternoon, including support for the dismissal by patron Pierre Bourgie. Bourgie’s comments come from an open letter also published in part in Le Devoir today.

In La Presse, a former provincial minister of finance and current chair of the board of the McCord Museum in Montreal has written an opinion piece questioning not the dismissal itself per se but the manner in which it was carried out—so, specifically around governance process and responsibilities.

The Art Newspaper reports that the Musée d’Orsay in France is “suspending its cooperation with the Montreal museum, cancelling the Canadian leg of a joint exhibition on the naturalist Charles Darwin,” and that the director of the Palais de Tokyo is also concerned about Bondil’s dismissal. [NOTE: The Musée d’Orsay aspect of this July 16 Art Newspaper article was later refuted in a July 18 article by Le Devoir; more details on that below.]

UPDATE (Monday, July 20, 2020, 1:35 p.m.): Developments in these events, as well as reporting and analysis, continued over the weekend.

On Saturday, July 18, Le Devoir reported that, contrary to prior reporting by the Art Newspaper, the Musée d’Orsay had not broken off links with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

And at press time today, the Musée d’Orsay website indeed still had the MMFA listed as a co-organizer of its upcoming exhibition “The Origins of the World: The Invention of Nature in the 19th Century.” Representatives of the Musée d’Orsay told Le Devoir it has “had no news to date from the management of the Montreal museum concerning the exhibition… No decision has been made at this stage regarding the [exhibition] in Montreal, and the exhibition will take place at the Musée d’Orsay from November 10, 2020 [onward].”

Le Devoir also reported that on Friday, leadership of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the National Gallery of Canada and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec declined to comment on the situation at the MMFA—though the director of the Société des musées du Québec, Stéphane Chagnon, said he is following “the situation closely.”

Patron Pierre Bourgie wrote an opinion piece, also on Friday, about his support for Bondil’s dismissal. It was in La Presse

Also on Saturday, the Journal de Montréal reported on a small demonstration of roughly a ten people protesting Bondil’s firing outside of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

And a weekend analysis article in the Globe and Mail noted that Bondil said she had not been permitted to view the workplace review related to her dismissal.

On Sunday, July 19, reporting about Bondil’s dismissal was published in France’s Le Monde newspaper. That article focuses in part on the relationship between Bondil and board chair Michel de la Chenelière. It also raises the question of governance structure issues at North American museums in general.

On the morning of Monday, July 20, La Presse published an opinion piece by Stephen A. Jarislowsky—cofounder of the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance and the Institute for the Governance of Private and Public Organizations, as well as a donor to the museum—in which the author supported the board’s dismissal of Bondil.

In that op-ed, Jarislowsky provides governance analysis and also recounts his own experience of his foundation giving $1.5 million to the museum in 2013 specifically for the hiring of a Canadian art curator and to support exhibitions on Montreal collections and on younger Canadian and Quebecois artists. Jarislowsky says museum leadership did not follow through adequately on its promises around that funding. He also says that MMFA staff hired through the project relayed workplace concerns to him, and that two of them eventually left due to said concerns.

Finally, late in the morning on July 20, the board of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts issued an extended statement about the past week of events and media coverage.

“In making this decision [to dismiss Bondil], the Board of directors was fully aware of the outcry the decision would elicit,” says part of the statement. “The strong and emotional reaction in support of Ms. Bondil was predictable and, to some extent, completely normal. The success the Museum has enjoyed since she took office, and the institution’s enviable position among the world’s major museums are largely due to Ms. Bondil’s enormous talent—this talent is undeniable, and the Board recognizes it.”

The statement added: “However, the Board could not ignore the findings of the report it had commissioned from an independent firm specializing in human resources management. These findings, which align with several employee accounts previously reported by the union, were focused in particular on Ms. Bondil’s management style and the deterioration of the workplace climate within the walls of the Museum. Her refusal to accept certain of the report’s findings, her inflexibility, and her refusal to adequately implement certain of the report’s recommendations left us little choice, despite many attempts by the Board to reach a solution. With full knowledge that the decision would be controversial, the Board made the decision to terminate her contract in the exercise of its fiduciary duties in the firm belief that the decision was in the best interests of the Museum and its employees.”

July 20 represents the final update on this post. For other updates on these events, please consult our weekly news roundups.

Corrections note: On July 16, this article recapped coverage from the Art Newspaper indicating that the Musée d’Orsay had cut off ties with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts due to Bondil’s dismissal. On July 18, Le Devoir published a credible report asserting that ties had not been broken off between these museums. We have added a note to the end of our July 16 recap and posted more extensively at the beginning of our July 20 recap regarding this discrepancy and error. 

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also content editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.