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Bondil Ordeal: Another Face Off Between a Prominent Museum Official & Staff

True to her outspoken nature, Nathalie Bondil, the summarily sacked 13-year director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is not going quietly. Having gotten a taste of her feistiness and grit during a meeting we had three years ago in New York, I’m not surprised.

Bondil, who joined the museum in 1999 as curator of European art, became its chief curator the following year and its director in 2007. She accumulated a profusion of honors for her accomplishments, including the Legion of Honor (France’s highest national distinction) and the Order of Canada (“for extraordinary contributions to the nation”).

Nathalie Bondil being awarded the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston in 2016

During our meeting, Bondil described her formula for success as “determination, passion, work, and not being intimidated.” Backing down in the face of her latest challenge just isn’t her style: Last week, she struck back by telling Steve Rukavina of CBC Montreal that she believed her firing was related to her having criticized the board’s recent hiring of Mary-Dailey Desmarais to head the museum’s curatorial division, a function that Bondil had previously assumed, in addition to her traditional directorial role.

In my previous post on Bondil, I had noted the anomaly of a museum director’s “finding time to be her institution’s chief curator, while undertaking the duties of chief administrator and overseeing major capital projects and reinstallations.” The now ex-director told the CBC that she believed Desmarais “wasn’t the best candidate for the job [of chief curator]” and she alleged that “the board fired her when she let them know she disagreed with the choice.”

Further polluting the atmosphere is a whiff of nepotism: Desmarais, as described in the CBC’s report, “is part of the powerful Desmarais family, which is one of the museum’s biggest donors.” The board, as expected, has said that her family connections had nothing to do with her selection and that she is fully qualified.

Mary-Dailey Desmarais
Photo by Stephanie Badini

As it happened, Desmarais’ name came up during my conversation with Bondil three years ago, when I wrote this:

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 [emphasis added] and is co-curator [along with Thomas Brent Smith, director of the the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art] of The Western: An Epic in Art and Film (opening at the Denver Art Museum and then traveling to the MMFA).

It’s hard from me to know what to think about this sorry situation, because the museum’s board hasn’t provided any specifics about Bondil’s alleged offenses and I don’t know her nearly as well as the other two embattled museum professionals whom I’ve recently defended (here and here). The board won’t get into are the specific reasons for forcing her out, offering only generalizations about “multilayered deterioration of the workplace climate, described by some employees as ‘toxic,'” and “allegations of psychological harassment.”

Here’s what the board said in yesterday’s official statement, which fell considerably short of its stated purpose—“to set the record straight”:

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….

Some have accused the Board of concealing the real reasons for the removal of Ms. Bondil. Others have requested that the report produced by the external firm be made public—which is impossible given the legal constraints designed to safeguard the confidentiality of those involved [emphasis added].

So we may never know whether the museum’s deposed director is being denied the due process of having the opportunity to publicly confront and rebut her accusers, or is being spared embarrassing public exposure of her alleged faults. In its statement, the board said that it tried to ease her departure in the final year of her contract by allowing her to “continue to focus on programming and exhibitions, and delegate her other duties to facilitate a transition that would recognize her exceptional contribution to the museum. Ms. Bondil rejected this proposal”…

…probably with a few salty words, not suitable for publication.

The board ended its anti-Bondil spiel by ungrammatically refusing to entertain further questions. This syntax gaffe, as seen in my screenshot of the board’s statement, may be corrected by the time you read this:

It is left to mystified observers to “comment this press release.” For that, let’s turn to a U.S. museum director whom I greatly respect for his management savvy and professional integrity (notwithstanding his own museum’s current flare-up with petitioning employees and their supporters):

Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As quoted by Brendan Kelly of the Montreal Gazette, Alex Nyerges did not mince words in defending Bondil:

I would label this a travesty. I’ve been an art museum director almost 40 years and…Nathalie is a consummate scholar. She’s a tremendous leader. She is ambitious. She is tenacious. She is untiring.

They set the bar so high in terms of scholarship, in terms of the quality of exhibitions, programs, the publications, the design….I look at the National Gallery in Ottawa and in Washington, I look at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I know them all intimately. And I can say no one has done as much as Nathalie as a leader and as an icon in the art museum field.

Nathalie is the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

What Natalie isn’t is meek or deferential. That was my immediate takeaway from my talk with the Montreal MFA’s first female director, as exemplified by the first words of in my Mar. 30, 2017 blog post about our meeting:

“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 on the day after the Association of Art Museum Directors released its report on The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships.

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.”

Nathalie was then still a rarity—a woman directing a major encyclopedic art museum (and the first to direct the Montreal MFA). While letting her go, the board did acknowledge that “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.”

While not commenting on Bondil’s dismissal, 11 members of the museum’s curatorial team did sign a statement of unanimous support for Desmarais’ selection as director of the museum’s curatorial division, praising “her openness to collaborate, her intelligence, her ability to listen and learn quickly, her discretion, her modesty, her integrity and the quality of her scholarly publications” [emphasis added].

“Discretion” and “modesty” are not Bondil’s strong suits. For better or worse, she has the arrogance of intelligence.

The next big hurdle for the museum, especially challenging in these turbulent circumstances, is the search for a new director. Here’s what the museum’s press release says about its plan:

The interim leadership of the Museum will be assumed by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, represented by Michel de la Chenelière [the board president]. An international recruitment process will be initiated shortly.

Good luck with that.

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