Saying that harassment and intimidation had been “daily occurrences”, a group of more than 100 current and former employees of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has issued a letter declaring that the dismissal of their former director general and chief curator, Nathalie Bondil, was justified.
Bondil was ousted on 13 July by the museum’s board of directors, which cited “disturbing” reports from staff members about a “toxic” workplace atmosphere. The dismissal followed an investigation into the employee allegations that the board commissioned from a consulting firm.
In their letter, issued late Monday, the employees write that under Bondil’s leadership, “employees’ voices were not heard. Professionals’ ideas were largely rejected or reformulated by a director general more concerned with her personal reputation than that of the museum.”
“Worse still,” they write, “the success of projects developed by employees were rarely credited to them. Instead, credit went to the director general and her close allies.”
Bondil, 53, who had led the museum since 2007, has countered that her dismissal arose from her opposition to the appointment of Mary-Dailey Desmarais, a curator from an affluent Quebec family that is prominent in the province’s cultural affairs, as the director of the museum’s curatorial division. Bondil has drawn support from colleagues at several other institutions, among them the Musée d’Orsay and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, who argue that she was a dynamic leader who put the MMFA on the map and sharply increased attendance and exhibition space.
Her dismissal has also been broadly debated in the Canadian art world, and Quebec’s culture minister has ordered an inquiry into whether it was justified. The museum was also placed on "concerned status" by the Canada Council for the Arts, which could affect future funding.
In an email today, Bondil suggested that employees were coerced into signing the letter. “I am not at war against the museum, and overall against its cherished team,’’ she says. “I am devastated when I see names of good friends and esteemed colleagues. They call me, and I understand the pressure they have in such circumstances. I know their fear of losing their jobs during our Covid times.’’
“I regret the museum chair [Michel de la Chenelière] is supporting this communication, which divides the team, with the help of a private communication agency against one individual, me, who does not have intended any legal procedure,’’ she adds. “It seems that having been fired is not enough.’’
“Waiting for the government investigation report based on facts, I remain confident there will be a positive and constructive conclusion to this story for all of us,’’ Bondil adds. Some employees of the museum, insisting on anonymity out of concern for keeping their jobs, contacted The Art Newspaper to say that staff members were strongly urged to sign the letter within a short time frame.
In the letter, however, the employees say they finally found it necessary to speak out against Bondil. “Confronted with the torrent of commentary and public taking of positions, we have stayed out of it and tried to focus on our work,” the employees write. “But enough is enough now.”
“We recognise Nathalie Bondil’s vision and her success in further raising the MMFA’s profile,” they say. But during her tenure as both director general and chief curator, “harassment and intimidation were daily occurrences, often taking place before witnesses, especially during exhibition installations. Such behaviours were tolerated and even supported by the former director general.”
“Grievances were also blocked, and colleagues were repeatedly frozen out. No team had any professional autonomy in making decisions, and all were systematically forced to wait for the former director general to be available to approve every last detail. This resulted in avoidable overtime, cost overruns and added stress.’’
“Projects were carried out—and constantly started over—one after the other, at a frenetic pace without any true consultative planning or post-mortem; the former director general’s micromanagement crippled employee workflow. The daily reality was one of nonstop time pressure.”
They add: “Given that she was responsible for this chaos, we are deeply offended that the former director general has publicly described herself as the victim of ‘a lynching.’’’
The employees assert in the letter that their workplace environment has improved since Bondil’s departure. “The last three weeks have seen fresh impetus at the museum, a new spirit of collaboration and respect for all views among colleagues in a climate free from harassment and intimidation thanks to the good governance of the board of trustees who made a responsible and considered decision,” they write. “For us, the page has turned.”
• This article has been updated to include a direct response from Nathalie Bondil.