The Explosive Firing of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Director Has Become a Messy International Affair. Here’s What Happened
The Quebec Culture Ministry is now investigating the abrupt firing of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director Nathalie Bondil.
Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy is investigating the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal (MMFA) for its abrupt dismissal of director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil.
Roy said she was “flabbergasted” when she first learned that Bondil’s job was in jeopardy, telling Le Devoir: “the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is Nathalie Bondil.”
Roy is hiring an outside firm to look into the museum’s management, CBC News reports.
The investigation follows an international outcry, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris allegedly taking the drastic step of cutting ties with the MMFA.
Laurence des Cars, the head of the Musée d’Orsay, told the Art Newspaper she was “appalled by the absolutely unacceptable and shocking conditions of Bondil’s sacking.”
A planned joint exhibition, “The Origins of the World: The Invention of Nature in the 19th Century,” about the work of naturalist Charles Darwin and the intersection of the arts and sciences in the period, will reportedly no longer travel to Montreal. (The MMFA told La Presse Canadienne that there had not been any decisions regarding the exhibition.)
The investigation also comes on the heels of a Change.org petition from museum members calling on the MMFA to hold a special assembly to offer insight into the decision-making process that led to Bondil’s firing.
Started by Thomas Bastien, who served as the director of the MMFA’s education and wellness department until February, it has over 3,000 signatures.
“Museum regulations provide for a special assembly if a request is made by a minimum of 100 members,” Bastien told the Montreal Gazette.
The museum’s first woman director, Bondil joined the institution in 1999 as curator of European art, was named chief curator in 2000, and director in 2007.
MMFA terminated Bondil’s contract on Monday, citing a staff union letter alleging that she had created a “toxic work environment” that led several high-level employees to step down from their posts.
Despite efforts on the part of the board to resolve the issue, the situation was “becoming steadily more problematic” with “disturbing accounts” and “allegations of psychological harassment,” the museum said in a press release announcing her termination.
The board of directors initially proposed an arrangement in which Bondil would have continued in her post through the end of her contract in June 2021, reports La Presse.
Under the proposal, which Bondil rejected, she would have retained her title and salary, but any choices regarding museum programming for two final exhibitions of her tenure would have to be approved by Michel de la Chenelière, the president of the board of directors.
Before firing Bondil, the board sought an external audit from a human resources management company, Le Cabinet RH, which found a “significant and multifactorial deterioration” in the work climate, according to the Montreal Gazette. Bondil denies those findings.
Roy, the culture minister, said in a statement that she asked to see the report twice, but that the museum refused.
In response, the museum announced that it would cooperate fully with the investigation.
“We nonetheless remain convinced that the decision to terminate Ms. Bondil’s contract was the right decision in respect of our role as trustee,” Chenelière, the board chair, said.
Bondil told the Globe and Mail that she was also never shown the report, and claims that the reason she was fired was because of her objections to the promotion of Mary-Dailey Desmarais to the newly created post of director of the curatorial division.
Desmarais is the wife of Paul Desmarais III, whose late grandfather Paul Desmarais Sr. was a major donor to the museum. The Desmarais name is attached to a pavilion added to the museum after a major 1991 expansion.
Paul Desmarais III’s uncle, André Desmarais, is currently on the museum’s board, and is one of three private donors funding half of the CAD$20 million (about $18 million) wing for artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, set to open in 2023. In 2018, Canadian Business magazine found that the family was the nation’s seventh wealthiest.
The toxic workplace allegations are “a lie meant to cover up irregularities in recruitment,” Bondil told CBC Radio-Canada.
Three other candidates were seriously considered for the new post now occupied by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, and internal documents ranking the finalists reveal that Desmarais was given the lowest score, just 97.5 out of a possible 180 points, reports Le Devoir.
The top-ranked candidate got 175 points, but the board’s human resources committee unanimously selected Desmarais. Bondil favored hiring the candidate with the near-perfect score, and proposed that Desmarais instead be promoted to a new deputy chief curator role.
Desmarais joined the MMFA in 2014 as an associate curator, the first job listed on her LinkedIn, and has been the curator of international Modern and contemporary art since 2018.
She did her undergraduate work at Stanford University in American studies, and earned a masters in art history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Desmarais went on to receive her PhD from Yale University in 2015, with the dissertation, “Claude Monet: Behind the Light.”
Following media coverage of the controversy, the MMFA released a statement signed by 11 of its curators, conservators, and other top employees aimed at counteracting “numerous comments, many of which are damaging to [Desmarais’s] reputation and that of the museum.”
“We feel strongly that Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s outstanding educational background… coupled with her experience as curator at the museum, will make her a valued and trustworthy director of the curatorial team,” the letter said.
At least a dozen former and current museum employees have anonymously corroborated complaints about an “unhealthy atmosphere” and “a regime of fear” at the MMFA during Bondil’s tenure, according to La Presse. The employees didn’t take issue with Bondil’s own behavior, but contend that she did not do enough to address their complaints.
One museum patron, Pierre Bourgie, published an opinion piece in Le Devoir supporting Bondil’s dismissal, arguing that her inability to handle growing staff complaints “undoubtedly weakened” the museum.
“In 2020 it is impossible to close one’s eyes to a toxic workplace environment. Such allegations are every serious,” the board president, Chenelière, told the Montreal Gazette.
But many high-profile figures have voiced their disappointment over Bondil’s dismissal, including Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Emma Lavigne, the director of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo.
“Bondil has put the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on the international map and showed us and millions of visitors that art and humanism could be a tangible reality,” Lavigne told the TAN. She called the abrupt dismissal “an act of pure violence.”
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