Knives are out at one iconic cultural institution of our city: the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). It all started with the surprising announcement that Nathalie Bondil, until last week Director General and Chief Curator at the MMFA, had been fired. After the news was known the knives have alternatively aimed at Michel de la Chenelière, Chair of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, and at Ms. Bondil herself.
It seems that in the first round of this confrontation, Ms. Bondil gathered the most support, while the board was cornered: the “villain” of the story. Politicians of diverse stripes like Louise Harel, Monique Jérôme-Forget, and Denis Coderre, celebrities like Julie Snyder, and choreographer Marie Chouinard, have sided with the dismissed director-general. On the other hand, the Museum union, and at least one donor have been critical of Bondil’s performance and have supported the board’s move. The Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy for her part has called for an independent review of the affair. Although the Museum is a private institution, it receives substantial support from the province. The board indicated that “will offer its full co-operation to the minister and will provide the independent firm with all information necessary to conduct its review, including disclosure of the report ordered by the museum to the maximum extent legally permitted.”
As a journalist who attended many vernissages presided by Ms. Bondil, she struck me as a person with a mission, careful about details, a perfectionist, effectively playing the role of the Museum’s visible leader. At the same time, her ways with the people working there gave me the impression that she should have a difficult temperament, an authoritarian personality perhaps. To put it nicely, I enjoyed covering the events she presented with great passion, but I would not have liked working for her.
Ms. Bondil’s relation with her co-workers seems to have been one of the key factors in her dismissal. After praising her contribution to the Museum, the board says in a statement on the case that “(it) 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 Nathalie Bondil’s management style and the deterioration of the workplace climate.”
The board’s decision was also supported by Stephen Jarislowsky, a significant donor to the MMFA, who this Tuesday wrote in The Gazette: “In my view, de la Chenelière’s courage and leadership allowed the board to reassert itself, and I feel it is a tragedy that this was not done earlier so as to balance the priorities of Bondil with those of other members of the MMFA team, and to prevent the loss of excellent staff.” In his piece, Jarislowsky points to a specific episode in which an important donation designed to bolster Canadian and Quebec art was not given the necessary attention.
The dismissal of someone who had such a large impact on the institution is likely to have adverse effects for everyone involved. Claude Villeneuve writing in Le Journal de Montréal made a comparison to the situation that affected the MSO a few years ago, which resulted in the exit of then Artistic Director Claude Dutoit. Like Ms. Bondil, he had also created what people call “a toxic working environment.” (Of course, Dutoit was also accused of other conducts that eventually led to his downfall in the music world). And he added that “one can significantly contribute to the development of an institution while being deeply toxic.”
The unceremonious dismissal of Ms. Bondil will leave many people scarred, and it may also damage the Museum itself. It has also elicited passionate reactions: Mme. Roy, the Quebec Culture Minister, even said: “the Fine Arts Museum is Nathalie Bondil.” Certainly, an overstatement. The MMFA was already a well-established and internationally-renown cultural institution long before Ms. Bondil came along in 2007. She contributed a great deal to it, and somehow her flamboyant style will be missed. Still, the MMFA will undoubtedly overcome this crisis and should continue flourishing—only that with new players. For now, this exhibition of discord is not what we want to see.