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Bonding with Bondil: Montreal MFA’s Head on Succeeding as a (Female) Museum Director

“In the end, I’d say that I’d hope I had been chosen for what I had between my two ears and not because of what I don’t have between my two legs,” Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, said in a wide-ranging conversation with me in New York last Thursday, the day after the Association of Art Museum Directors released its report on The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships.

Nathalie Bondil being awarded the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston last year

Her quip was a raunchier version of what I tell people who question why I don’t dye my graying hair: “I’m more interested in what’s inside my head than what’s on top of it.”

Bondil’s (and curator Anne Grace‘s) chief objective over lunch was to tempt me to see her museum’s ambitious Chagall: Color and Music (to June 11), billed as “the biggest Canadian exhibition ever” for that much-exhibited artist (nearly 340 works). The hook is that many of Chagall’s works were “imbued with musicality”: A variety of musical selections—“the soundtrack of his life,” as described by Bondil—accompany the displays in many galleries. The show will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (opening July 30) with a different title—“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage.”

Here’s a familiar image of a highlight that has strong New York City connections:

Chagall ‘s final model for “The Triumph of Music” mural at Metropolitan Opera (detail), 1966, private collection
© SODRAC & ADAGP 2017, Chagall ®. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris

As an opera fan and classical concertgoer, I was intrigued by the Chagall show’s musical theme. But I was even more tempted by an upcoming exhibition with baby-boomer vibes: Revolution: “You Say You Want A Revolution” (June 17-Oct. 8), organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which promises to let us “relive the heady days of the late 1960s” (if only!). Its news peg in Montreal is the 50th anniversary of that city’s Expo 67—the World’s Fair I attended as a college freshman in 1967 (the year Bondil was born). Montreal’s presentation of “Revolution” will highlight that extravaganza. In another manifestation of the museum’s penchant for “immersive experiences,” this show promises us “high-fidelity headphones that synchronize the sounds and images according to their location in the galleries.”

The coincidence that my long-planned lunch with Nathalie occurred when the “gender gap” in art museum directorships had once again hit the news made it almost impossible for me not to ask some questions about sexism. That’s not something I usually think about when interviewing female leaders: Rightly or wrongly, my questions are usually gender-blind.

Nathalie was clearly not all that interested in the “woman question” either: She is much more focused on all that she’s doing today as head of her museum than on how she got there. Like most art museum directors, she’s a trained art historian and came up through the curatorial ranks, rising to the directorship in 2007. Unlike most art museum directors, she has found time to be her institution’s chief curator, while undertaking the duties of chief administrator and overseeing major capital projects and reinstallations:

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ new Hornstein Pavilion for Peace
Photo: Marc Cramer

There are no other curatorial hierarchies at the Montreal MFA—everyone is a full curator (not “assistant” or “associate”). That includes Mary Dailey Desmarais, who has been at her job for less than two years and is co-curator of The Western: An Epic in Art and Film (opening at the Denver Art Museum, May 27-Sept. 10, and then traveling to the MMFA, Oct. 14-Jan. 28).

Although overcoming gender prejudice is not usually a topic I pursue in interviews with museum officials, I persisted with Bondil because of the AAMD-driven timeliness. I finally induced her to reveal her success formula—“determination, passion, work, and not being intimidated….I’m a workaholic. This is not a secret.”

AAMD’s “Gender Gap” report revealed that there was only one female director among the leaders of the 13 highest-budget art museums (2016 operating budgets of $45 million or more) in the U.S. and Canada who responded to the survey. The report didn’t identify the outlier, and a spokesperson for the association declined to release “information or data from individual museums.” (Some 210 of AAMD’s approximately 240 members participated in the survey.)

Near the end of our conversation, Bondil admitted that there was one form of prejudice that only age had made it easier to overcome: When she was young, she was “rather pretty.” That initially caused some men (and even women) not to take her seriously. “Now that I’m becoming older, it’s great!”

I think a lot of professional women (myself included) can identify with that. But the problem with getting older is age-ism, which is not much of an improvement over sexism.

Hmm…how would I look as a redhead?

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