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On museum rock stars, governance and getting fired…

Last week, the Globe and Mail article published an article titled A fight at the museum: Feud between acclaimed curator and the board that fired her enters next stage . It tells the story of Nathalie Bondil who as Curator (beginning in 1999) and then in addition Executive Director (since 2007) of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art (MMFA), put Montreal on the global museum map. Under her leadership the museum developed an international reputation for bold and innovative programs. In fact, the MMFA today has become ‘a point of pride and a central Quebec institution’. Ms. Bondil is lauded in the article as ‘ebullient’, ‘dynamic’, ‘passionate’, ‘visionary’, ‘energetic’, and ‘overflowing with ideas’. In recognition of her accomplishments she has been honored with the Order of Quebec, the Order of Canada and the Legion D’Honneur in France. In July of this year Ms. Blondil was fired. She immediately sued.

In a written statement, the Board of Directors of the MMFA indicated that Ms. Blondil was fired ‘because the working environment at the museum had become dysfunctional.’ Furthermore, Ms. Blondil ‘failed to cooperate’ with board efforts to address the issues. By all accounts, staff complained that Ms. Blondil was a controlling micro-manager who insisted on being involved in every decision. She was also impulsive and unilateral on key decisions. One person suggested there was ‘a total lack of decisional structure other than Nathalie’s whim’. When Ms. Blondil’s perfectionist tendencies are added to the mix, what ensued were ‘significant delays and cost overruns’ in mounting major exhibitions. In other words, to hear employees tell it, Ms. Blondil acted as though she was the museum.

What is immediately striking about this story is that Ms. Blondil was not a newly hired leader whose management style had only been revealed after her hiring. She had been employed by the MMFA for 21 years and had been Executive Director for 13 years. The Board had taken a highly creative, artistic curator, with entrepreneurial personality attributes, and added general management/administrative responsibilities. In the Board of Directors’ defense, many directors of major museums come from curatorial functional areas. That said, given that the board announced only last week the establishment of an HR Committee and only last year hired their first head of HR, it can be assumed that the attention to Ms. Blondil people management skills is recent. Did the Board of Directors genuinely not know about the issues brought forward by staff or did they turn a blind eye to ‘how’ their star leader delivered results?

On being ‘alerted’ to the HR issues, the board contracted a consultant who recommended, in addition to establishing and HR Committee, hiring a director for the curatorial department to act as a buffer between Ms. Blondil and her disgruntled curators. Ms. Blondil argues that she readily agreed to this recommendation and launched a process by which both internal and external candidates were evaluated. The board insisted on being involved in the hiring process and when Ms. Blondil recommended one of the external candidates for the role, the board countered by recommending one of the internal candidates. If this disconnect was not concerning enough, the internal candidate recommended by the Board happens to be a member of the Desmarais family, yes that Desmarais family, whose name graces the building they all work in. To be clear, with a PhD in Art History from Yale, Mary Dailey Desmarais is no slouch in her field. However, her family and board connections cannot help but raise questions about the role of wealthy donors on boards and the potential for conflicts of interest in an instance like this.

This truly unfortunate saga continues…..

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 Ext. 777

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