Montréal Museum of Fine Arts – A “Humanistic” Museum with a Holistic Vision: In Conversation with Nathalie Bondil

02 Nathalie Bondil Photo André Tremblay-sm

Nathalie Bondil (photo: André Tremblay)

Nathalie Bondil is the Director General and Chief Curator of the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and has recently joined the MMIAM program’s International Advisory Committee. Under Nathalie’s direction, the Museum has garnered international recognition for its innovative partnerships and programming. Among the many honours she has received, Nathalie Bondil has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada and recently received the Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadership Award from Business for the Arts. Laura Adlers had the privilege of interviewing Nathalie about the MMFA projects which are making headlines around the world.

The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is internationally recognized for its diverse and innovative programming, involving at least 450 partnerships with associations, clinics, hospitals, research centres and universities. One initiative in particular – the “museum prescription program” – received a lot of media attention recently. Can you tell us a bit about it?

This idea took shape several years ago when I envisioned the MMFA as a “humanistic” museum with a holistic vision, collaborating with the scientific community to build bridges between sciences and humanities. It was, in fact, a dream to enlist the support of doctors and neuroscientists who have conducted research on the benefits of culture and cultural institutions like museums on a person’s well-being. Doctors cannot actually prescribe a visit to a museum, of course, but they support the idea that a museum is a great asset in our community and that exposure to culture – to art, museums, music – makes us feel better. We now know that not only does visiting a museum or hearing a concert make us feel better on an individual level, but it also facilitates social interaction between people, between our friends and family.

For years, I discussed this holistic vision with my brother, a surgeon, and finally presented it to members of the Association des Médecins francophones du Canada. They who found it very interesting. We have just launched the pilot program on the first of November. In one year’s time we will meet again and review the results. It is true that there has been a real buzz about this program which has received a lot of press around the world! The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto asked us about the program, best practices, etc., and have launched their own “prescription” program as well.

Of course, this idea of “prescribing” a visit to the museum is by no means meant to replace medication or a medical treatment but could be added to it, just like exercise, for example.

MMFA-MFdC Museum prescription. Photo MBAM, Jean-François Brière.

MMFA-MFdC Museum prescription. Photo MBAM, Jean-François Brière.

This is just one pilot project among a dozen we are developing at our museum. For instance, we are partnering with Dr. Howard Steiger at the Douglas Institute on a project integrating art and museum visits to a treatment program aimed at people with eating disorders. In total, we have 450 partnerships thanks to our program “Sharing the Museum”. They are being boosted by our new Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Art Therapy and Education recognized for its innovative actions.

The MMFA also has a unique relationship with the music community in Montréal. Can you tell us about the music programming at the museum?

This is another element of our interdisciplinary approach to programming. It was launched in 2011, when we opened Bourgie Hall, a new professional concert hall built inside a church the Museum acquired. It presents about 150 classical, jazz and world music concerts every year, plus 50 educational programs. For a museum to host a music organisation in residence is highly unusual… and a great success.

Bourgie Hall, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Paul Boisvert.

Bourgie Hall, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Paul Boisvert.

Bourgie Hall has its own production and administrative teams, all employees of a foundation, Arte Musica. They collaborate with our curatorial and educative teams to develop the season’s programming linking live concerts with current exhibitions as was the case, for example, during the Chagall: Colour and Music exhibit (2017). This season, a concert featuring the music of Ann Southam will be set in the pavilion dedicated to Canadian and Quebec art so the audience is surrounded by the works of the composer’s contemporaries.

Another dream has also come true: opening a new cinema hall, thus making good use of our underused auditorium. Programming for the “Cinema du Musée” has been entrusted to the expert team of “Cinémas Beaubien and Du Parc” as an exchange service with the MMFA. Although independent, its programming is developed to complement the museum’s exhibition calendar. We hope to open a second cinema hall next year. I was able to enlist a generous sponsor for the first hall but we must fundraise for the second hall.

These initiatives follow the same approach as that for the “prescription” project: we bring in the experts (in medicine, music, cinema, etc.) to collaborate with us on developing a powerful program. That makes our plans that much stronger and more likely to succeed. It’s a win-win situation.

MMIAM students have the immense privilege of meeting with you during their studies in Montreal. You share with them the business philosophy that informs all of your decisions for programming and partnerships at the MMFA. Can you share this business philosophy with our readers?

The role of a museum is to explain our lives, the world around us. In my view, we receive a wonderful gift, the rich heritage of our ancestors, and so it is our mission to preserve and enrich the collections and to keep this institution alive for artists and relevant for the younger generation. Art also reveals that each era faces social issues and challenges. The museum is like a tree – its roots digging deep into the ground are the past while its branches reaching for the sky are our present and future. The museum and the keys it holds to the past are very important tools in understanding current issues and imagining our futures. Please refer to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s guide Culture and Local Development: Maximising the Impact, for an overview of our social and health innovations.

It is important to make people think and to allay, for example, fears about immigration through exhibitions. It is a kind of citizens’ diplomacy which we practice: being open-minded and creating dialogue through art in a very subtle way through our exhibits. We can be very useful and efficient in creating a peaceful future for all of us through concrete actions… like our awarded Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavillion for Peace.

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, level 1 – The Salons of the Belle Époque: Romanticism. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo © Marc Cramer.

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, level 1 – The Salons of the Belle Époque: Romanticism. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo © Marc Cramer.

Why do you think the specific study of international arts management is important for the profession and for the cultural sector?

Everything “inter” is good! – interdisciplinary, international, intersectoral, intergenerational – because it is important, especially now, to understand other points of views, other cultures. We live in a country of citizens from so many different backgrounds. It is important for everyone to learn from one another and imagine a future together and to make it work. We must develop a global citizenship as we must face global ecological issues. In this perspective, we will inaugurate, in 2019, The Stephan Crétier ans Stéphany Maillery Wing for World Cultures and Togetherness.

What specific qualities do you look for when you are hiring an arts manager that are unique to working at an art museum?

I look for positive, empathetic, open-minded and motivated people. Education is important to a certain extent, and having a background in fine arts is obviously a must, but openness and commitment is as essential as character. The profile of the entrepreneur is what I like the most!

What are some of your future plans for the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts?

Having a curious and entrepreneurial personality, we keep bringing new ideas with concrete actions. I have just signed an important partnership with AVATAQ, the Inuit cultural organization of Nunavik (North of Quebec) which the Museum will host in residency in 2021.

Many of the things I do are possible only because I am in Canada. It is easier to be innovative and entrepreneurial here and so I also want to pay tribute to this great country. The world needs more open-minded places like Quebec and Canada!

School activity. The Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal. Photo: Caroline Hayeur / Collectif Stock Photo.

School activity. The Museum of Fine Arts of Montréal. Photo: Caroline Hayeur / Collectif Stock Photo.

Dancing on the Edge of Innovation: MMIAM Graduate Leaves Italy to Join Dance Therapy Team at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens

Anna-Aglietta-ILL-Abilities - Credit_ Kien Quan-xsm

Anna AgliettaAnna Aglietta graduated from the MMIAM program in 2017. Originally from Turin, Italy, she is one of the first two graduates of the program to have received a double Master degree in international arts management from both Bocconi University and HEC Montréal. Anna became interested in arts management, because she wanted to be more in contact with people and work in a field using the arts to directly help society. She decided the MMIAM degree would offer her the academic and cultural experience to help realize her goal. Laura Adlers recently caught up with her at her new job in Montréal, Canada.


Where are you currently working and what are your primary responsibilities?

I am an Assistant to the National Centre for Dance Therapy at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The centre’s mission is to support dance intervention and dance for the well-being of people, and they also conduct research and support other research projects about the health benefits of dance. For example, we offer services in dance therapy through hospitals, schools and prisons, and we are starting a new program in a youth prison here in Quebec. We also offer classes in our studios for anyone who wants to take dance classes adapted to their needs. For example, we offer ballet classes for children with Down Syndrome, or hip-hop for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Adapted Danse at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Photo: Patrick Pleau.

Adapted Danse at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Photo: Patrick Pleau.

As the Assistant, I coordinate the day-to-day activities, but in particular I provide marketing support and help to organize events. I also help with fundraising and grantwriting. We are a small staff of three in this department, so we are all doing a bit of everything!

What aspect(s) of the program were the most valuable to you for your career and why?

I certainly use a lot of tools I learned in marketing and fundraising, but I think the most important aspect was the international nature of our class. We came from eight different countries. We all learned a lot from one another and our shared experiences from our home countries. It forced me to challenge myself and others and to look at things from different perspectives.

What did you gain personally and professionally from living and studying in four different countries with students from around the world?

Being flexible, adapting to working with others in new environments and learning to compromise in a team environment, especially with students from different parts of the world. Our cohort had students from Italy, China, India, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Iran and Japan.

Which campus abroad was the most memorable for you and why?

Definitely Montréal, so much so that I stayed! I arrived and I fell in love with the city, the vibe of the people, their openness. I was reluctant about the Montréal part of the program before I applied, I was worried about the snow and cold, coming from Italy, but I really love it!

How did your studies in international arts management change your perspective of arts management practices in your home country?

It has shown me that Italy still has some work to do in terms of exploring new ideas. Young people need to find their own place and find a way to combine the status quo, which is based on a more traditional system, with more contemporary approaches, to best highlight what our beautiful country has to offer.

ILL Abilities at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Photo: Kien Quan.

ILL Abilities at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Photo: Kien Quan.

The arts world is changing, but it is slow and it requires changing the way people think there, which will take time. I didn’t realize this until I did the MMIAM program, met other arts managers and learned about arts organizations in other countries. The program allowed me to see the differences between Italy and other parts of the world. Montréal in particular is really lively, very open to debate and challenging common opinions, to innovation and new ideas by the public, not just at the high level in the institutions. Les Grands Ballets, for instance, really tries to connect with the general public through its programming, that tries to offer something for everyone. Moreover, the multicultural aspect of Montréal, and the fact that so many different cultures live peacefully together, is so interesting and inspirational to me.

What is one of the greatest challenges facing arts managers in Italy today?
How do you think these challenges need to be addressed and by whom?

The current government in Italy (with a populist leader) seems to be focusing its investments in support of an older part of the population, to the detriment of youth programs, culture, and education. Artists and arts organizations are doing a really good job at encouraging public opinion and trying to open up debate. I think arts managers are trying to find their role in supporting Italian values, as well as human values. An example is the immigration debate, which at the moment dominates Italian politics. Many artists and arts organization have come up with initiatives and performances supporting cultural diversity and inclusion. For instance, the Egyptian museum in Turin offers free entrance to Arabic natives (in acknowledgement of the origin of the museum’s collection). To me, the fact that this was debated goes to show the importance that arts can have in promoting social change.

What is one of the challenges you face in your role at Les Grands Ballets?

What Les Grands Ballets is trying to do is change the way people think about dance and the way that dance can affect people’s lives.  We want people to know that this is not just high art. We also provide a safe and accessible space for people to come and heal through our dance therapy program. It is also a challenge to convince those who don’t understand the benefits of the arts and dance therapy that it can really help to improve people’s health. For example, some of the populations we serve suffer from chronic pain or mental health issues,  and research has shown that dance therapy is very successful at alleviating their symptoms, so we are always working on communicating the benefits to the public and promoting the program.

The members of the MMIAM's 4th cohort visit Jacanamijoy in Bogota.

The members of the MMIAM’s 4th cohort visit Jacanamijoy in Bogota.

The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts: Balancing International Reach and Strong Local Roots (Abridged)

1993 Portrait-of-Hugo-Simons-sm

by Serge Poisson-de Haro, François Normandin and Emmanuel Coblence

While the most renowned art mega-museums located in global cities are characterized by their attendance figures and the wealth of their collections, museums that are of medium size and located in culturally influential cities have also succeeded in making a name for themselves. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has implemented a model that enables it to realize its ambitions by mounting temporary exhibitions that strengthen its local roots and enhance its international reach while maintaining the highest standards. Under the leadership of Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator since 2007, this museum has become a widely recognized cultural institution. Following conversations with members of MMFA senior management, the authors identify the main factors behind the simultaneous strengthening of local roots and global impact.

Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Bernard Fougères et Jean-François Lejeune.

Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion, Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Bernard Fougères and Jean-François Lejeune.

As with many museums, the evolution of the MMFA during the past two decades saw a radical shift from “museum as temple” centred on an original mission of conservation to the expanded concept of “museum as forum”, taking into account educational, cultural and economic issues. This evolution was fuelled by a growth in museum attendance in Quebec and by the vibrant cultural scene in Montréal. In 2010-11, the museum had revenues of $28M, of which 59% was provided by public support, 25% by earned revenues and 16% by donations and sponsorships. The museum attracted 563 000 visitors, 87% of them from the Greater Montréal area, and this factor influenced significantly the MMFA strategic objectives:

  1. Enhance the institution’s reputation locally, ensuring that it is firmly rooted in the Montréal community, including reaching out to neglected groups (disadvantaged youth, cultural communities, etc.).
  2. Promote and strengthen Montrealers’ loyalty to the museum, through a significant increase in membership, in order to foster donations of art works to enrich the permanent collection.
  3. Ensure the Museum’s financial viability, by increasing self-generated resources and donations and, to a lesser extent, revenues from publications, boutiques and restaurants.
Otto Dix - Portrait of Hugo Simons

Otto Dix (1891-1969), Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925, tempera and oil on plywood. The portrait – that has an incredible story – was acquired by the MMFA thanks to a collective effort rarely exerted for a single work of art. MMFA, purchase, grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, gifts of the Succession J.A. DeSève, Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Andrea Bronfman, Mr. Nahum Gelber and Dr. Sheila Gelber, Mrs. Phyllis Lambert, the Volunteer Association and the Junior Associates of the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Mrs. Louise L. Lamarre, Mr. Pierre Théberge, the Museum’s acquisition fund, and the Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MMFA, Brian Merrett.

Based on an analysis of the production of three exhibitions, the authors identified a three-step decision process: (1) validate the relevance of the artistic and academic approach of an exhibition in light of the organization’s strategic vision, ensuring both export potential and local relevance; (2) mobilize key stakeholders to secure the content needed to constitute a significant body of work; and (3) ensure viability by mobilizing partners for joint funding. In this perspective, internationalization is as much a condition as a consequence of an institution’s ability to finance culturally ambitious exhibitions.

The article demonstrates that it is possible for medium-sized arts organizations, which operate in a community rich in cultural resources and committed to supporting the arts, to carve out a place for themselves. Although their tangible artistic resources may be more limited than those located in global cities, organizations like the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts can use their creative skills to develop innovative projects that reflect a sense of belonging to the community. Success depends on the extent to which an organization can rally stakeholders and mobilize the competencies and tangible/ intangible resources needed to secure both cultural content and financial resources. Through a series of innovative projects, these organizations can make a name for themselves and gain both local and international support and recognition.

Read the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 16, Number 1, Fall 2013.