Nathalie Bondil – bringing oxygen to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is enjoying unprecedented growth in attendance, membership, education programs and the number of pavilions. The Museum is now a village of buildings at the corner of Sherbrooke St at du Musée; the most recent addition being the Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art that wraps around the restored historic limestone Erskine & American Church, now home to the the Salle Bourgie Concert Hall in what was the church’s nave.

The driving force behind this refreshing growth is the museum’s Director General and Chief Curator, Nathalie Bondil. Nathalie will be the first person to state that she is just one person within a talented group of museum professionals; and that she has the support of an outstanding group of volunteers, including the Museum’s Board of Directors. But there’s more – the need for a dynamic presence – a person who encourages colleagues to go beyond their perceived abilities and achieve new levels of accomplishment. Great organizations benefit from inspired and inspirational leadership. Apple proved that without Steve Jobs it was just another computer company. Nathalie Bondil’s knowledge of Art History, current trends, striking intellect and her natural charisma has given The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Montreal a dynamic champion of the Arts.

A visit with Nathalie Bondil is more like an experience than a conversation. It’s a stimulating exchange of ideas, concepts and an opportunity to enjoy a little intellectual soaring. We met at the end of a typically busy Bondil day. Nathalie sat across the table and closed her eyes for a few moments. She smiled, opened her eyes and I knew that I had one hundred percent of her attention for our conversation. (I subsequently learned that she has this ability to compartmentalize topics, enabling her to focus on the immediate subject.)

A northern city like Montreal is perhaps an unlikely place for Nathalie Bondil. She was born in Barcelona, where her father represented a French bank. The family moved to Morocco when she was still young; and the Bondils travelled extensively. “My parents believed that travel was an important part of my life’s education. And having lived in Spain, Morocco and Provence in France – you’d think that I might have sought out a warmer climate.”

Nathalie studied Art History at The Louvre in Paris, graduating in 1996. She worked at the Van Gough Museum in Amsterdam, at Sotheby’s in New York and at the Musée de monuments Français as a specialist in European art from the 17th to the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1999, the museum’s Director Guy Cogeval hired Nathalie as Curator of the European collection from 1800 to 1945, and she was quickly promoted to Chief Curator in 2000. At the same time, Nathalie was responsible for conservation, restoration, archives, the library, scientific publications and expositions.

After Cogeval’s resignation in 2007, Nathalie Bondil was appointed Director-General and Chief Curator of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The museum has produced some outstanding exhibitions since then, some of which have gone on to other cities and prestigious museums, after their Montreal debut. It’s a significant achievement in the museum business to create an exhibition that is subsequently picked up by other museums. A bit like writing a hit show for Broadway. And like a hit show – there are financial rewards in addition to enhancing the museum’s reputation.

Nathalie explains the difference between an exhibition and the permanent collection. “Exhibitions like Cuba! or Jean-Paul Gaultier recognize and celebrate artistic achievements. We presented Jean Paul Gaultier as an artist rather than as a fashion designer.” (In fact it was this approach that attracted Gaultier to Montreal) Continuing, Nathalie adds; “Exhibitions bring people – often new people – to the museum. We know that some will return if they enjoy their experience and the intellectual stimulation.”

“The permanent collection is the heart of our engine. We work for the collection. It’s our legacy to the community. It’s the permanent collection that establishes the long term reputation of The Museum. It’s a great privilege to work for the permanent collection.”

Cuba! was one of the first exhibitions Nathalie produced as the museum’s Director. It involved some delicate negotiations with the Cuban government. “We worked closely with Cuban museum curators who have wonderful works of art and historical artifacts, but no money. When we’d present an idea, they’d say: ‘We have no money – ok – let’s do it!’ And together we’d find a way. It was an inspirational experience to work with them. It was a beautiful exhibition, very peaceful and – for me – emotional.” Continuing, Nathalie adds; “Montrealers were ready to accept the Cuba exhibit for what it was. Perhaps we are the only city that could launch such an exhibit.” Cuba! went on to the Groninger Museum in The Netherlands.

“I have fallen in love with Montreal – it’s a city of tolerance, like a cultural ecosystem.”

Nathalie and her team were confronted with a dilemma in the fall of 2009. It was the 40th Anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s world-famous bed-in at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel. “We wanted to open the doors to Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko because of John and Yokos’s message of Peace. But the economy was in terrible shape and it wasn’t the time to mount an exhibition without an admission fee. I thought back to my Cuban curators and knew that I had to find a way. We went to our 40 partners and asked them to donate services – not money – just their services. Their response was fantastic. Companies from many different fields brought our work into their imaginations, taking our work and re-expressing it. With the generosity and creativity of our partners, we were able to open our doors and welcome Montrealers to enjoy Imagine, to celebrate those special days of Montreal history when John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote Give Peace A Chance – a song that remains an anthem to Peace.“

“We are very fortunate to have a wonderful group of 400 volunteers, from our Board of Directors to the 150 volunteer guides who give their time, their enthusiasm and their passion for the arts. The people on our Board invest a lot of time and intellect to their Board responsibilities. They don’t have to do this – they have better things to do with their time. But – they are passionate about giving back to their community; and to the museum’s role in their community.”

“In France, everything belongs to the state and my boss would be the Mayor. In Montreal and Canada, the community owns the museum and my boss is a volunteer! We have a healthy balance; and we are all here to serve the institution, we want to share our dreams with Montrealers.”

“I don’t believe that a Museum should be a mausoleum, but rather it should be a theatre of our memory. People want to be touched when they go to a museum, to step beyond themselves, and… perhaps to escape from themselves. My job is to enchant the lives of people. It’s a wonderful privilege.”

The Bourgie Concert Hall has generated a new dynamic to the quartet of Museum buildings at the corner of Sherbrooke and Rue du Musée. “In 2011, there were 140 performances, bringing thousands of people to our campus. And I agree that many people who support music concerts may also have an interest in the visual arts. We have seen our membership increase since the start of the Arte Musica programming in the Salle Bourgie.” Museum membership is indeed growing, up from an average of 40,000 to 62,000 members – and growing steadily. It’s an indication that the expansion has captured the imagination of Montrealers.

“It’s cool to go to The Museum”

Nathalie is hard at work to increase school and student involvement at The Museum. “We have seen a 50% increase in students attending classes. The outreach program extends to schools and universities in addition to our classrooms here at the Museum. We’re fortunate to have a benefactor who did very well as a publisher of school textbooks. This gentleman has committed to investing in the construction of more classrooms, so that we can accommodate more young people. Our objective is to increase of student participation program from a very healthy 40,000 up to 100,000 students studying art in all its forms.”

In May, The MMFA made the historic announcement that long-time supporters Michal and Renata Hornstein were donating their Old Masters collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings to The Museum. (The couple had already donated approximately $50 million to the Museum.) Reputed to be the world’s largest private collection of Old Masters, the Hornstein gift is valued at $75 million. Visibly emotional when relating her admiration for the Hornsteins, Nathalie said: “No Canadian institution would be able to purchase or create such a collection. Mr. Hornstein and his brother were very successful in Montreal, after fleeing post-war Europe and coming here to start over. Their bequest is a gift to the citizens of Montreal, to the city that welcomed them and where they were able to prosper.” The Director added that the Hornstein Collection would add considerable prestige to The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and encourage exchanges and tours with other world-class museums.

Noting that their gift was a “thank you for everything” that Montreal, Quebec and Canada had offered his family; Michal Hornstein requested that the collection be open to Montrealers for free “at least two days a week”. Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand (a patron of the arts himself) took the initiative to commit the Quebec Government to build a new pavilion for the Hornstein Collection; to be located on Bishop Street and accessible through the Jean-Noel Desmarais Pavilion.

Nathalie Bondil’s brilliance, dedication to the Arts and to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the Hornstein gift.

For Nathalie, it’s a love affair with her adopted city and her passion of the Arts. For Montrealers, her presence in our city and her stature in the Arts community adds to our international stature in the Arts. For people fortunate enough to interact with Nathalie Bondil, they come away refreshed and energized.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Musee des beaux arts de Montreal is located 1379 Sherbrooke St. West.