A fight at the museum: In Montreal, a feud between an acclaimed curator and the board that fired her enters a new stage
Nathalie Bondil gave the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts a striking makeover, but its board says she also made it a tough place to work. Her dismissal this summer has fractured the worlds of Canadian art, philanthropy and finance – and a meeting next week could decide what happens next.
By Kate Taylor and Chris Hannay
The Globe & Mail, Totonto
Read this article on The Globe & Mail’s website
When the troubled Montreal Museum of Fine Arts holds its annual general meeting next week, the gathering will be virtual but the drama will be real. It will feature the next skirmish in the summer-long civil war between the museum’s former director, Nathalie Bondil, and the board that fired her in July, a battle in which Canada’s corporate captains, cultural philanthropists and arts mavens have been busy taking sides while foreign museums watch with interest.
Before her dismissal, Ms. Bondil had served as both general director and chief curator, rapidly building the MMFA into one of Quebec’s crown jewels, an institution recognized internationally for its innovative programs and the most visited fine art museum in Canada. Yet the museum’s board said a dysfunctional work environment made it impossible to keep her.
An alarmed Quebec government was not convinced: Culture Minister Nathalie Roy commissioned a report on the museum’s governance and threatened to cancel a $10-million provincial grant that had been promised for a new wing devoted to Montreal-born abstract artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. That report has not been made public but the decision by board chair Michel de la Chenelière to step aside before the Sept. 29 meeting suggests the government may have found problems with the way the board handled Ms. Bondil’s dismissal.
Investment executive and philanthropist Pierre Bourgie, who had publicly criticized Ms. Bondil’s management style after her departure, has stepped forward to replace Mr. de la Chenelière, who will still seek re-election for his seat on the board. Four seats are coming up for election, and four Montreal businesswomen have stepped forward to challenge the board-approved candidates, who include Mr. de la Chenelière and two other incumbents, in an effort to shake up a board dominated by high-profile philanthropists. Meanwhile, Ms. Bondil has launched a $2-million lawsuit, alleging the board has defamed her.
As culture wars, accusations of prejudice and allegations of harassment erupt at museums across North America, Montreal’s case features an unprecedented public battle between a high-flying international impresario who won France’s Légion d’Honneur in 2019 and the volunteer board of a treasured institution now pained to discover that her staff weren’t so impressed.
“The Montreal Museum had achieved fame with its exhibitions that left the beaten path, its shows on design, fashion, cinema. … It had this international renown for its art therapy programs, » said Stéphane Chagnon, general director of the Société des musées du Québec, in French. “In the face of this success and growth of attendance … it’s almost a Greek tragedy: There is this reversal from one day to the next and the hero becomes the anti-hero.”
When the museum fired Ms. Bondil on July 13, Ms. Roy herself said she was shocked: “The MMFA is Nathalie Bondil!” she told Le Devoir newspaper. Staff took offence at the Culture Minister’s suggestion one person could be credited with the intensive creative labour that is a good museum, but Ms. Roy had inadvertently hit the nail on the head: The problem at the MMFA was that it often seemed as though Ms. Bondil and only Ms. Bondil was the museum.
To some, Ms. Bondil is legitimately celebrated as the ebullient French museum executive who put Montreal on the map with blockbuster exhibitions and headline-grabbing community programs, such as one that encourages doctors to prescribe museum visits for depressed patients. For others, she stands accused of creating a dysfunctional working environment in which micromanagement and last-minute panics were the order of the day.
Current and former staff complain that Ms. Bondil involved herself in every detail of exhibition and gallery planning to the point of disrespecting her curators and rearranging or planning installations without consulting them, while causing significant delays and cost overruns. In several installations, walls were repainted multiple times or even ripped out. “She wanted to oversee every decision, including the colour of the walls,” said Laura Vigo, a curator at the museum. “It was like having an overprotective mother. … She thought she knew everything.”
Were these firing offences? The two sides in this debate mainly agree on the chain of events that led to Ms. Bondil’s dismissal, but suggest very different interpretations of the motivations. They argue over whether the board was only doing its legal duty in ensuring a safe workplace or has overreached its authority and meddled in day-to-day operations, in particular when it insisted on its own candidate to become Ms. Bondil’s new deputy. Over Ms. Bondil’s objections, the job of curatorial director went to Mary-Dailey Desmarais, a relatively young but well-respected curator who has a PhD in art history from Yale and family connections to Quebec’s powerful Desmarais clan.
In person, the woman at the centre of this controversy is highly energetic and overflowing with ideas and information. In media interviews, Ms. Bondil would press the museum’s achievements on her listener without appearing egocentric.
“She’s very passionate; she has an extremely clear vision, she’s demanding …. she knows what she wants,” said Anne Eschapasse, the museum executive who Ms. Bondil has identified as her favoured candidate for the job Ms. Desmarais got.
Trained at France’s prestigious Ecole du Louvre, Ms. Bondil joined the MMFA as curator in 1999 and was promoted to chief curator a year later. When her mentor, the general director Guy Cogeval, departed in 2007, she eventually took over his job. However, she also retained the post of chief curator, a dual function that several observers suggest was her downfall.
“That’s the moral of this story; those are the two of the most demanding jobs in a museum, director and chief curator should never be the same person,” said Marc Mayer, former director of the National Gallery of Canada. “You can blame the board, not for hiring her, she’s a very talented person, but for promoting her while letting her keep her old job.”
Under Ms. Bondil’s supervision, both running the institution and planning its shows, the museum boomed: She programmed popular blockbusters featuring international artists such as Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, and fashion designers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. Visitation rose to new heights, hitting 1.3 million in 2017, the year of Montreal’s 375th anniversary, and 1.1 million last year. The museum also reached out to community groups so that its growing audience included school children using its online programs as well as Alzheimer’s patients and anorexic teens doing art therapy.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bondil bridged the traditional social divide between French and English wealth in the city to raise money for building projects from both, doubling the museum’s floor space in a decade. Mr. Bourgie contributed to a new wing that opened in 2011 and included a concert hall in a converted Anglican church, adding performance to the institution’s bursting portfolio. Collectors and Holocaust survivors Michal and Renata Hornstein donated their collection of historical art to a new four-storey addition erected at the back of the museum in 2016. The Hornstein Pavilion for Peace includes the education and art therapy centre, named for Mr. de la Chenelière, a philanthropist who made his fortune in educational publishing.
You could criticize this expansionism and people have, complaining about growth for growth’s sake, a lack of rigour in the blockbusters and a lack of attention to both the permanent collection and to Canadian and Quebec art. La Presse art critic René Viau has called out the museum’s exhibitions for pandering to public tastes while art dealer René Blouin questions the need for continual expansions and flashy installations, suggesting the museum should concentrate on presenting masterworks in simple surroundings. Financier and collector Stephen Jarislowsky, in an opinion piece published after Ms. Bondil’s departure, said he had been disappointed that the museum had lost two curators of Canadian art in a row after he made a donation to help fund that area.
But these were subtle critiques from cultural insiders. The public and the politicians were very happy with Ms. Bondil. She was honoured with the Order of Quebec in 2011 and the Order of Canada in 2015. In her native France, where she won the Légion d’Honneur last year, she was regularly cited in the Paris media and included in public debates, recognized as a key advocate for the new museum, a place that was culturally diverse and community engaged.
Montreal had watched Toronto’s millennial cultural boom with envy, as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum unveiled expansions designed by star architects, but by the mid-teens, the rival city could boast it was home not just to the world-famous Cirque du Soleil and the internationally renowned Montreal International Jazz Festival, but also the most-visited art museum in Canada. In a society where cultural achievement is tied to the idea of nation, the MMFA had become a point of pride and a central Quebec institution.
Inside the museum, however, things were not so rosy; staffers were deeply unhappy with management they describe as so chaotic it defied professionalism. In interviews with The Globe and Mail before she filed her lawsuit, Ms. Bondil agreed that the museum ran into problems during the fall 2019 installation of the much-delayed One World galleries, a geographic stroll through global culture dedicated to the museum’s collection of archeological objects and non-Western art. The staffer who supervised the installation was driving her team too hard, Ms. Bondil said.
She added the installation had been postponed twice because it took time to develop new curatorial approaches in galleries that pair historic and ancient art with contemporary pieces, and that, as director, she was ultimately responsible for fashioning an artistic vision that would have public appeal.
But Ms. Vigo, one of the curators who created those galleries, said the problems could be traced to Ms. Bondil’s insistence on curating the objects herself, continually blocking the vision of the three curators assigned to the task in favour of her own selections. The final installation was so delayed that 1,000 objects, some of them priceless ancient artifacts, were left to be installed in the last week. “We were always managing a crisis; there was always something you never expected happening,” Ms. Vigo said.
Staff at the museum said the problems, which were particularly related to the installation of exhibitions and galleries, went back years.
“We were working in an environment with a total lack of decisional structure other than Nathalie’s whim,” said Anne Grace, who has served as curator of modern art at the museum for 13 years and organized the exhibition devoted to Mr. Calder’s famous mobiles in 2018. Mere weeks before that opening the museum was still negotiating with the exacting Calder Foundation about paint colours: The first wall visitors encountered had been painted three shades of grey and yellow before Ms. Bondil finally signed off on red.
Ms. Bondil said that she did not recall the incident, but that it is standard to experiment with wall colours in museum installations.
In another instance, Richard Gagnier, head of the museum’s conservation department, said he returned from a summer holiday in 2016 to find that a polyurethane rubber wall meant to evoke a gay bar had been installed as part of an exhibition of photographs by the American artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Mr. Gagnier, who had not been informed of this design element, said the material would emit sulphur that could darken the photographs and he had to insist it be removed.
Staff say Sandra Gagné, then the head of exhibition production, was the “magician” responsible for requiring that Ms. Bondil’s last-minute requests were met. Ms. Gagné left the museum shortly after Ms. Bondil was dismissed in July. Ms. Gagné did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Bondil had imported from France a style of exhibition design, often created by professional architects, that wowed visitors with highly dramatic spaces painted in strong colours and defined with columns, arches, platforms or false walls. The first gallery in the Thierry Mugler show in 2019 was lit like a stage set and featured the French designer’s costumes for a production of Macbeth, including a holographic reproduction of Lady Macbeth’s farthingale bursting into flames. A 2018 show devoted to Napoleon turned a gallery into a throne room with scarlet wallpapers, red and gold floors and projections on the ceiling.
But curatorial and conservation staff sometimes felt important and delicate art was coming second to the general effect, while Ms. Gagné’s installers worked to impossible deadlines. Staff members complained to their union and the union, frustrated by a lack of response, finally took the matter to the board in 2019. It was the action that ultimately lead to Ms. Bondil’s dismissal.
The board, led by Mr. de la Chenelière, ordered an independent report on the situation from the Montreal human-resources consultant Le cabinet RH. The report was delivered last October, but Ms. Bondil said it was never shown to her. The board has replied that while the text itself was kept confidential to protect employees who had spoken with the consultant, Ms. Bondil was well acquainted with its contents after a three-hour presentation. The report made several recommendations, including the appointment of a director for the curatorial department who would act as a buffer between Ms. Bondil and her curators.
Ms. Bondil said she accepted that recommendation readily and acknowledges she was overworked and needed a deputy. “I was always in favour of the creation of this new position, the director of curatorial. It was a great solution,” she said.
However, by the time the board and Ms. Bondil were interviewing candidates in June, it had become clear there were two sides in this process and they were far apart. The board wanted the insider, Ms. Desmarais, who Ms. Bondil had hired in 2014, to take the job; Ms. Bondil was backing an outside candidate, the more experienced Ms. Eschapasse, who had worked at the museum as an assistant to Ms. Bondil from 2009 to 2011 and had recently left the National Gallery of Canada after four years as its deputy director.
In the public speculation that followed, much was made of Ms. Desmarais’s connection to the museum’s historic donors, the family whose name graces the very building where she works. The daughter of American financier Gordon Pattee, the curator is married to Paul Desmarais III, grandson of the late Paul Desmarais, founder of Power Corp.
The family has long been philanthropically associated with the museum and its art adviser, former senator Serge Joyal, sits on the museum’s board. When news of Ms. Bondil’s firing first broke, both France Chrétien Desmarais and her husband, André, Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s aunt and uncle by marriage, made statements to the Quebec press supporting Ms. Bondil.
Their niece joined the family in 2008, when she wed Paul Desmarais III, who was working at Goldman Sachs in New York while she was completing her PhD in art history at Yale. (Her subject was cleverly counterintuitive: death and darkness in Claude Monet’s art.) The couple live with their four children in a Westmount house they purchased from former prime minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, for $4.8-million in 2015.
Her high-flying connections may have helped Ms. Desmarais land her first job as a junior curator at the MMFA – Ms. Bondil said she did not consider the curator had any conflict of interest when she hired her – but they don’t appear to be the reason the board promoted her. Although her experience was curatorial, not managerial, the board members were looking for an insider who understood what was going wrong at the MMFA and had expressed concrete ideas about how to fix it. (Ms. Desmarais declined to comment on her appointment or Ms. Bondil’s departure.)
“The board is seeking to restore harmony. Getting the person who can do that is at least as important as how experienced they are,” said Diana Nemiroff, a former National Gallery of Canada curator who is completing a book about that institution’s three female directors.
Despite entrusting her to curate the large exhibition of post-Impressionist art currently showing at the MMFA, Ms. Bondil has said that Ms. Desmarais had the lowest marks of the four finalists for the curatorial director job. Ms. Bondil suggested appointing the more senior Ms. Eschapasse instead, while making Ms. Desmarais an assistant. However, in a statement released in August, the board said the marks for each candidate were assigned by Ms. Bondil herself.
Around this time, the board offered Ms. Bondil several opportunities to complete her contract – which was set to expire in June, 2021 – while keeping her title and working on two exhibitions, but handing over management to the board. The board said she refused and denied there was any problem.
Ms. Bondil said she considered this constructive dismissal, although a labour lawyer consulted by The Globe said Ms. Bondil has little grounds to complain of constructive dismissal, because she had participated in attempts to rectify the situation such as the creation of the curatorial director’s position. Her one option would be to sue for damages, explained Ralph Farley, senior counsel specializing in labour law, at Therrien Couture Joli-Coeur LLP.
Instead, Ms. Bondil is now suing the board for defamation in a suit filed last week, alleging that accusations about the work environment are a cover for the real reason the board fired her: because she refused to sign off on the process by which Ms. Desmarais got the curatorial director’s position. In allegations not proven in court, Ms. Bondil’s suit said the board had fixed on Ms. Desmarais back in February.
When Ms. Desmarais was appointed director of the curatorial division in early July, Ms. Bondil declined to lend her name to a news release saying the hiring process had been transparent and unanimous. By this point, her disagreements with the board and with Ms. Desmarais’s candidacy were so apparent, she had actually been excluded from the final round of interviews with Ms. Desmarais and Ms. Eschapasse.
According to the board’s account, it was the publication of newspaper stories citing her disagreement that led to Ms. Bondil’s actual dismissal. A story in Le Devoir cited the candidates’ marks to show that the recently appointed Ms. Desmarais scored lower than the others. Knowing these marks were in Ms. Bondil’s control, the board concluded she was the newspaper’s source. Ms. Bondil said she was not the source of the leak.
“Nathalie Bondil was dismissed because she betrayed the confidence of the Board by refusing to address pressing workplace issues … by her inappropriate behaviour during the process that led to the appointment of the … curatorial director, and by discussing confidential and misleading information with the press,” the board said in a fact sheet accompanying its August statement.
“What has put the Museum in a bad light has been the relentless media and political campaign which Nathalie Bondil began in the week before her dismissal and has pursued ever since, and which has been based on a one-sided and false presentation of the facts. She has vilified Michel de la Chenelière, the board, and the chosen candidate, and has presented the conflict as a personal power struggle between herself and Michel de la Chenelière.”
Indeed, since Ms. Bondil’s dismissal, she and the board have been waging a proxy war through a series of opinion pieces published in the Quebec press, while some museum directors in France and in the United States have sprung to her defence with public comments. The struggle culminated last week in Mr. de la Chenelière’s withdrawal and Ms. Bondil’s lawsuit.
One of the main issues in these debates is governance: What right did the board have to impose a curatorial director on its general director? Mr. Jarislowsky, a corporate governance activist, has said the board was acting correctly in taking control of a lax situation. But businessman Michel Nadeau, who chairs the investment committee of the MMFA Foundation, argues Mr. de la Chenelière was grabbing power for himself. (Previously, Mr. de la Chenelière has said that the board was legally obliged to rectify the work situation at the museum but he declined to be further interviewed for this story.)
Professionals with no direct ties to the museum or Ms. Bondil mainly agree that while the board would normally not be expected to intervene in such a hiring decision, the circumstances were extraordinary. “This isn’t nearly as much about the hiring of the specific person as it is about reacting to a serious malaise that has been created under the director’s watch,” Ms. Nemiroff said. “This is the real reason why the board has authority to intervene.”
Two months after Ms. Bondil left, that malaise still hovers: The museum is both eerily empty and surprisingly busy these days, as security guards shepherd carefully spaced visitors toward one of the few displays that is open, the temporary exhibition devoted to post-Impressionist art. The show, featuring works by Paul Signac, Berthe Morisot and Odilon Redon, among many others, was brought to Montreal thanks to Ms. Bondil’s long connections to an unidentified European collector. He is quoted in text panels praising the former director’s “energy, inventiveness and charm.”
And yet it was Ms. Desmarais who did the actual legwork, fashioning a curatorial narrative from an idiosyncratic collection of 500 diverse artworks created in Paris around the turn of the century. Observers might guess that great drama attended its installation, but what do the masked visitors care as they strategically plot their path through the crowd? As the woman who once ruled the place launches missiles over the battlements, Montreal’s prized art museum soldiers on.