Unless you are new to both the museum world and the internet, you have most certainly read about Montreal doctors being able to prescribe free museum visits to patients suffering from various physical or mental health conditions. This is the result of an inspiring partnership between the Association of French-speaking Doctors of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), the main host of the upcoming CTA conference. As Director and Chief Curator of this pioneering institution, Nathalie Bondil shares advice with fellow museum workers wishing to develop empathy and improve well-being through their institution.
Arts and health three ways
At MMFA, Bondil and her team have developed a three-fold arts and health initiative to ensure they could create relevant actions, backed by thorough research and disseminated through competent networks.
First, they opened a 3,500 square meters wing, made possible by the Michel de la Chenelière Foundation, dedicated to education and art therapy. It includes, among other things, an art therapy studio, a medical office, and an art “hive” — a studio open to all, supervised and facilitated by the museum’s full-time art therapist. You read that right, MMFA is actually the first museum to ever hire a full-time art therapist.
The second component of the MBAM’s “secret weapon” is its Arts and Health committee gathering 16 experts in health, well-being, art therapy, research, and the arts. Presided by Chief Scientist of Québec Dr Rémi Quirion, this Arts and Health committee — a world’s first in an art museum — brings in cutting edge research materials and scientific partnerships to feed and improve the museum’s actions regarding art therapy and well-being.
Last but not least, the MBAM is building an unprecedented collaboration with the Association of French-speaking Doctors of Canada which resulted in the aforementioned museum prescriptions. In doing so, Bondil hopes to present the museum visit as a “therapeutic, restorative and healing device”.
Making healthier museums: a shared vision and complementing partners
For Bondil, the success of the art therapy initiative at the MBAM is rooted in two principles: having a strong shared vision, and finding partners to complement your expertise.
“Innovation starts with a vision. Often, it’s a will coming from the director which then needs to percolate through every level of the institution and reach every team,” explains Bondil. In her opinion, major shifts – such as building a well-being wing within the museum — only work if and when the institution as a whole is engaged in a clear and shared vision. Staff from every single level of the institution need to be involved in the process. “When we first introduced the idea of the Arts and Health committee to our board, it definitely didn’t receive unanimous support. For some people, it was steering the museum away from its initial mission,” she says. Bondil asserts that working to convince board and staff members is a big part of the process; and it takes time. How much time? The acclaimed medical prescription programme you read about took over five years to implement.
“I strongly believe in the power of co-creation and collective genius,” says Bondil as she stresses how crucial relevant partnerships were in making the different arts and health initiatives possible at MMFA. “Finding and maintaining alliances with high-quality partners who share your vision and are convinced of the relevance of what you have to offer,” is adamant, according to Bondil. She underlines that such partnerships also require a lot of humility and flexibility: “it is important to let go and trust experts who are not from your institution to take the lead on some questions” — in this case, health.
This echoes a recent interview I had with André Kraft from the Komische Oper Berlin who argued that partnerships resemble love relationships: you have to be ready to lose a little bit of control for them to work.
Join Nathalie Bondil and hundreds of other arts professionals to discuss why, how and if museums can support inclusivity, encourage empathy and improve well-being at the upcoming Communicating The Arts conference in Montreal, 8-10 October 2019.
Nathalie Bondil © by Studio SPG Le Pigeon
Thursday at the Museum © Mikaël Theimer