Crisis at the MMFA: Bring in the accused

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

The dismissal of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) director general and chief curator Nathalie Bondil was one of the great melodramas of the summer. Latest developments to date: Bondil is now suing the MMFA’s Board of Directors and seeks $ 2 million for moral and financial damages; Michel de la Chenelière, Chairman of the Board, was forced to resign and is replaced by Pierre Bourgie. As recently as Aug. 11, an open letter signed by more than 100 current and former employees attested to a toxic work environment which, according to the signatories, had been tolerated for years by the MMFA management. They also criticized attempts to discredit the board of trustees.

Daniel Beaupré of the UQAM school of management is undertaking an external audit at the request of the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications. His task is to shed light on the events that led to Bondil’s termination and render judgement on management issues.

From the outset, Quebec Culture Minister Nathalie Roy has sided with the former director general. “The MMFA is Nathalie Bondil,” she stated. For his part, Michel Nadeau, chair of the investment committee of the MMFA Foundation, has criticized former MMFA chair Michel de la Chenelière for meddling in day-to-day operations. Chenelière denies any wrongdoing: “How can one claim to defend the lofty principles of governance […] while ignoring serious management problems within the walls of the museum?”

Bondil’s contract came to an abrupt end on July 13, following a troubling report about the work climate at the museum. Despite the serious allegations against her, one might wonder if the former director deserved such a fate. She had held the position since 2007, having previously put in eight years of loyal service with the institution. Even beyond her 21 years of experience, Bondil was doubly notable as a woman at the head of a great institution and as a French citizen who, thanks to her contacts across the Atlantic, allowed the MMFA to gain international stature.

Some have spoken of a media lynching and harassment. However, if there is indeed harassment, it is more likely to be found elsewhere.

Testimonies are unequivocal. Some say they were “berated in front of everyone,” others were “yelled at, in the face.” “Terror, fear, a shut-your-mouth attitude, these should not exist in 2020,” concludes a former employee. The MMFA union had reportedly informed the appropriate internal authorities of the situation on several occasions. Faced with management inaction, the union allegedly appealed to the board which, last October, mandated the Cabinet RH firm to investigate. Its report, presented in February, recommended the creation of a curator position to relieve the director general and chief curator of part of her responsibilities.

In an interview granted the day after the announcement of her dismissal, Bondil affirmed that an agreement had indeed been reached regarding a strategic reorganization of the MMFA, an assertion that is at odds with the board’s insinuation that she was being “inflexible.” On the other hand, disagreements arose during the recruitment process. The executive committee gave preference to a candidate other than Mary Dailey Desmarais, whom they considered “junior” (meaning: insufficient professional experienced compared to the other candidates), though Desmarais’ candidacy was ultimately accepted. Does this mean that the board imposed its choice for the newly created position of director of the curatorial division? Desmarais was certainly not parachuted into this post without merit. As her LinkedIn profile indicates, she has been guest curator since 2014 and curator of international modern art since 2015. Questions of conflict of interest surrounding the choice of candidate, or worse, collusion, if they had any basis, ought to have been raised long ago. Either way, the circumstances surrounding this promotion has caused quite a stir.

A “Worrisome” Situation

The governance of the MMFA has been called into question, not only by Bondil, but by many high-ranking officials. The Canada Council for the Arts has already suspended its financial support pending clear
answers to the questions hanging over the board of trustees. Ultimately, the institution could lose the funding of $450,000 granted each year by the Canada Council for operations. In addition, after pledging $10 million for the construction of a new wing dedicated to the works of Jean-Paul Riopelle, the Quebec government now wants to recover its grant, according to a report in Le Devoir. Solutions, however, had been agreed to by the administration, in agreement with the union. This sent an encouraging signal. It would seem that government decisions continue to lag behind the situation within the institution and plunge the MMFA back into uncertainty.

Coda

Clearly, in the eyes of the board, the decision to dismiss Bondil was necessary. That the decision was forced – that she could not at least walk out the front door – in large part explains the outcry. It is now up to the board and its chair to explain their actions.

Nathalie Bondil, Mary Dailey Desmarais and Michel de la Chenelière have all put their reputations on the line. At this time of heated public rhetoric, it is worth remembering that just because someone is “the wife of” or “heir to” does not mean that this individual’s reputation is worth any less. At this juncture, the only reputation that should concern us collectively is that of the MMFA.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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