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Nyerges on the Purges: Virginia MFA’s Director Defends Bondil, Himself, Other Beleaguered Leaders

Already battered by the economic ills inflicted by the global pandemic, many art museums suddenly find themselves barraged by attacks from aggrieved staffers and former employees accusing the higher-ups of racism, harassment and micro-aggressions.

Striving to quell the unrest, art museum officials have pledged to do better and, in some cases (notably at the Metropolitan Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) have promulgated detailed plans for anti-racism training and for initiatives to improve their institutions’ equity and diversity in the composition of their staffs and their collections.

But until Alex Nyerges, veteran director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, candidly responded by email to my Tuesday post about the firing of Nathalie Bondil, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ widely admired director, I hadn’t come across any major museum officials who dared to publicly contradict the critics.

Alex Nyerges at the 2016 press preview for a VMFA show that I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Because I had mentioned Alex in my prior Bondil post (describing him as “museum director whom I greatly respect for his management savvy and professional integrity”), I sent Nyerges a link to what I wrote Tuesday. I had expected a brief thanks, not the fervent outpouring that I received, which (with his permission) I will quote at length:

This [Bondil’s dismissal] is a complicated story of board overreach.  As you’ve seen, it happens all the time.  Sadly. I’m looking forward to the investigation being conducted by the Quebec minister of culture into the museum’s governance and the issues of an allegedly “toxic” environment.  From what I have learned, it’s a travesty.  Montreal deserves better. So does Nathalie.

She and I spent an hour on Sunday afternoon chatting about her situation. It’s devastating but, as you noted, she’s a tenacious and determined person not prone to taking things without a challenge. It’s a good thing, too! 

I know Michel de la Chenelière, her board president, well. He and I serve together on the board of FRAME, our French-American museum collective. He has been to Richmond a number of times and I’ve been to Montreal an equal number. Our two museums have partnered on a half dozen major exhibit projects during the past 10 years, crossing the border both ways, and we have several more in the works.

Nathalie’s ambitious approach to innovative scholarship, her dedication to her audience, and her straightforward attitude are why her museum has the best attendance and membership base of any art museum in Canada. [I haven’t fact-checked this; I’m assuming that Alex knows whereof he speaks.] They play way above their weight class.

Plus, Nathalie is a genuine and warm person despite her relentless determination and focus. You caught her personality well [my link, not his, to my 2017 post].

Nathalie Bondil, upon receiving the Order of Montreal in 2018
Photo: Ville de Montréal / Sylvain Légaré

Alex’s sympathetic appraisal of Nathalie may have some basis in his own experience: He, too, has been targeted by attacks from people whom he described in his email to me as “a mostly anonymous small group of mostly former employees, most of whom served as gallery guards.”

Regarding the substance of their demands, embodied in their petition (with 1,378 signatories, at this writing) Nyerges told me this:

Some of their accusations are entirely fictitious. Some are exaggerations of truth. That’s not to say we are without issues. When one has 700+ employees, there are always issues, mostly minor, thankfully.

But our track record on all of the accusations could be a role model for the field. We have long been a leader in the effort for inclusion, equity and diversity. Half of my eight-person senior management team are people of color, three of whom are black women. More then 40% of our managers and department heads are, likewise, people of color. Our board of trustees is led by a president who is the first African American board chair ever for a large, mainstream American art museum! The board is also highly diverse and truly reflective of Virginia’s demographics.

Even more impressive is our acquisition record: Our current strategic plan calls us to focus spending toward African and African American Art [my link, not his, to highlights of the VMFA’s African American art collection].

We have the 7th-largest acquisition endowment in the country. During the past five years, we have spent 28% of all our acquisition funds on African American art alone. With some 16 curators across eight departments, all of whom have their collecting plans to fulfill, that’s an admirable record.

Romare Bearden, “Three Folk Musicians,” 1967, collage
Purchased by the VMFA in 2016

We aren’t taking our foot off the pedal: Our soon-to-be approved strategic plan for 2020-2025 will reaffirm that direction. Our goal, simply stated, is to be regarded in the top three of all museums in the world for its collection of African American art. 

That said, we all need to do better. And we will. There is far too much bias, intolerance, and racism in our world. We are all committed to making our museum one of the best places to work anywhere by striving to be fair, equitable, inclusive, and diverse.

Noting that “the list of those of us being attacked grows daily,” Nyerges told me that “we discuss it regularly” via Zoom meetings hosted by the Association of Art Museum Directors [AAMD]. “I was just on my noon Wednesday call—museums with budgets of $45 million or more. There are about a dozen or more of us—the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, etc.”

So far, the only related statement on AAMD’s public website is a Message on Black Lives Matter by Christine Anagnos, the association’s executive director. (The Association of Art Museum Curators has issued its own Statement on Systemic Violence and Racism.)

But back to Bondil: She awaits what she hopes may be some vindication from the Quebec government, which is mounting an investigation into the Montreal MFA’s conduct in this contretemps. A group sympathetic to Bondil has started its own petition (4,481 signatories, at this writing), requesting “a special assembly of the museum’s members” to discuss “an independent audit of the [museum’s] working climate,” “an open explanation” of the differences between the board and Bondil, and a suspension of her dismissal until the special assembly gets the chance to weigh in.

The petition’s signatories were invited to explain why they supported it. Here’s a typical response:

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts would certainly not have the international aura it has today without the inspiration, passion and determination of Nathalie Bondil. Support her in this ordeal! —Taline Kalusyan, Laval, Canada

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