Former director and curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) Nathalie Bondil is suing the institution’s board of directors for defamation after she was dismissed last July, reports the Canadian outlet La Presse. The suit, filed on Friday, claims C$ 1 million (~$750,000) in punitive damages and the same amount in moral damages for what it describes as a “smear campaign” against Bondil’s reputation.
The board dismissed Bondil from the MMFA following an investigation into allegations of psychological harassment. Michel de la Chenelière, the president of the board, justified the decision on the grounds that Bondil had not properly addressed complaints of a “toxic” work environment — accusations that were brought forward by museum employees and described in a report by an external human resources firm.
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The former director, however, challenged the board’s characterization, arguing that the true reason for her dismissal was her failure to support the promotion of an associate curator at the museum, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, to a newly-created directorial position. The role, Director of the Curatorial Division, was conceived as an intermediary between Bondil and the 70 members of the curatorial department, in the hopes of easing pressure on employees that may have contributed to their stressful working conditions. (Desmarais is part of a family of longtime donors to the museum.)
Bondil said her choice to back a different candidate for the job was viewed as “insubordination,” according to the New York Times, and led to her termination.
The controversy over Bondil’s firing on July 13 prompted an official investigation by the government of Quebec, the museum’s largest funder. The government also suspended plans to donate $10 million for a new wing dedicated to Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. (The investigation is still ongoing, and its findings have not yet been released.)
In the lawsuit, Bondil accuses the museum’s administration of having made “slanderous, deceptive and defamatory remarks” that were disseminated publicly on several occasions, including in an email communication sent to MMFA members on September 2. These statements “destroyed the reputation for commitment and excellence that Ms. Bondil has built through decades of efforts and achievements,” the suit continues.
Bondil joined the MMFA in 1999 as a curator of European art and led the institution since 2007, becoming the first woman to assume post as its director. She has been praised for increasing the museum’s international visibility and widening its local reach, and was invested into the Order of Canada in 2016. In the wake of her dismissal, Bondil received an outpouring of support, particularly from French museums. The head of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Laurence des Cars, described the ouster as “absolutely unacceptable”; Emma Lavigne, who leads the Palais de Tokyo, said the move was “an act of pure violence.”
In August, however, more than 100 former and current workers at the museum signed a letter in support of her termination, alleging incidents of harassment and intimidation under Bondil that they described as “daily occurrences.”
In an op-ed for the Montreal Gazette published on Monday, the Canadian philanthropist Irwin Browns, a patron of the museum who had initially recommended Bondil for the director position in 2006, referred to her lawsuit as “the proverbial last straw.” The appointment of Desmarais into a new leadership role, he opines, was a good faith effort by the board to improve working conditions at the museum.
“[Bondil] should be reminded that she rejected the board’s offers and had this affair play out in the press,” Browns writes. “Unfortunately, the museum must defend itself in this suit, and that will take time and funds that could be allocated elsewhere during this time of COVID-19.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, an MMFA spokesperson provided the following statement: “The Museum’s lawyers have notified the Board of Directors of the reception of this lawsuit. They will respond to it in due course.”
Bondil could not be immediately reached for comment.