The ongoing controversy at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal has erupted into a legal battle as ousted director Nathalie Bondil sues her former employer for CAD$2 million ($1.5 million).
Bondil’s complaint alleges that the museum board “orchestrated, led, and continues to lead an intentional campaign of defamation and destruction of her reputation.” Bondil is seeking moral and punitive damages on the grounds of unfair dismissal and libel.
A museum representative declined to comment on the lawsuit, but told Artnet News in an email that the museum board “will respond to it in due course.”
The museum fired Bondil in July, nearly a year before the end of her contract, citing a “toxic work environment.”
Bondil claims in the lawsuit that the “real reason” the museum fired her was “her refusal to publicly endorse the irregular process that led to the hiring of the director of the curatorial division of the museum,” Mary-Dailey Desmarais, who earlier that month had been promoted to the newly created post.
Bondil says she favored a more experienced curator for the position and notes that the selection committee gave Desmarais the lowest evaluation score out of four candidates. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously in favor of Desmarais, whose in-laws are major donors to the Montreal museum.
Desmarais’s uncle-in-law, André Desmarais, is on the museum’s board and is one of three donors set to cover half of the $18 million bill for the museum’s new wing, which is dedicated to the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Originally set to open in 2023, on the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the project may now be in jeopardy after the Quebec government reportedly pulled its $7.5 million contribution to the project.
André Desmarais and his fellow private donors, Pierre Lassonde and Michael Audain, “have deferred entering into a financial agreement with the museum to support the project until we have a better grasp of the governance situation going forward,” Audain told the . “The Quebec government has suspended or requested their funds back.”
As the museum’s director since 2007, Bondil was widely credited with raising the museum’s international profile, and was awarded the Order of Canada in recognition of her accomplishments. Her sudden termination sparked an investigation by Quebec’s culture minister, Nathalie Roy, who is currently reviewing an external audit report conducted by the museum ahead of Bondil’s firing and is expect to announce a response to its findings in the coming days. (The museum had previously refused to share the report with the government.)
More than 5,000 Bondil supporters have signed a Change.org petition calling on the museum to hold a special assembly for members—which the museum is reportedly required to do if at least 100 members request it—to explain its decision-making process in the matter. At the same time, 100 current and former museum employees signed a letter in August supporting the board’s version of events and its decision to terminate Bondil.
The turmoil has also led to a change in leadership on the board. As Bondil was filing her lawsuit on Friday, three-term board chair Michel de la Chenelière announced that he would not be seeking another term, and would step down effective September 29, during the institution’s annual meeting. (He will continue to serve as a board member.)
In an open letter published last month in , the chairman of the the museum’s investment committee, Michel Nadeau, had accused De la Chenelière of overstepping the supportive role of the board by hiring an external firm to investigate the museum without involving Bondil, and by not sharing the resulting report with the other trustees. What should have been a manageable issue, Nadeau wrote, led instead to “the destruction of our museum.”
Taking over as head of the board will be former Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal board chair Pierre Bourgie, who previously served on the Museum of Fine Arts Montreal’s board from 2009 to 2018, and will now help lead the search for Bondil’s successor.
“For me, the museum crisis is behind us. It’s over,” Bourgie told the . “What interests me is the future.”
Bondil says she is also looking ahead, even as she pursues legal action. “My main focus,” she told the , “is to repair the huge damages of this defamatory campaign, not because of my past but because of my future.”