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

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.

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