Sonja Bata, founder of Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, dead at 91

Collector and philanthropist Sonja Bata, whose collection of global footwear treasures formed the basis of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has died.

Sonja Bata, footwear collector and philanthropist, died on Tuesday at age 91

Collector and philanthropist Sonja Bata, whose collection of global footwear treasures formed the basis of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has died at age 91. (Michal Sváček)

Collector and philanthropist Sonja Bata, whose collection of global footwear treasures formed the basis of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has died.

The museum's acting director Sheila Knox says Bata passed away on Tuesday evening at Toronto Western Hospital, surrounded by friends and family. She was 91.

Bata began collecting footwear in the 1940s, and her fascination with design and history led to a collection of more than 13,000 artifacts chronicling 4,500 years of history.

"We are so fortunate to have worked with such a visionary and to witness and participate in her passion for her collection. And for her generosity in sharing it with the city of Toronto," Knox said Wednesday. 
Sonja Bata poses for a photo at 'JUNO Sole: Celebrating 40 years of the JUNO Awards' at the Bata Shoe Museum in 2010 in Toronto. (Bata Shoe Museum)

Born in Zurich, Switzerland to a prominent family of lawyers, Bata studied architecture until meeting Czech-Canadian Thomas Bata, the heir of a global shoe manufacturing and retail empire. 

The two wed in 1946 and the young woman soon joined her husband on business trips around the world, developing a passion for collecting rare and traditional footwear along the way.

She is credited with creating the most comprehensive collection of historic footwear in the world, and building the Bata Shoe Museum into a world-renowned institution in downtown Toronto.

'She never did stop collecting'

"When she had about 1,500 pairs of shoes in her basement, a friend of hers who was an anthropologist took a look at them and said, 'You know, these really are museum worthy. They're not being worn very much or at all anymore; they're not made anymore. You really should have them kept properly and safely in a museum setting.' And that was in 1979 when she decided to found the museum," Knox said. 

"She rounded out the collection with another several thousand shoes, so by the time we opened the museum in 1995 we had over 10,000 items from around the world and throughout history. She never did stop collecting. In fact, the last pair she purchased was two weeks ago." 
Sonja and Thomas Bata Engagement photo, Spring or Summer 1945. (Bata Shoe Museum)

The last pair of shoes she bought was 18th Century women's shoes, which are heeled footwear, made with green and red fabric, with latches on the sides.

"She always said that her favourite shoe in the collection was the one that she mostly recent acquired," she said. "She saw the unique possibilities of showing her collection and showing how much you can learn about people from what they wear on their feet."

Described as warm, kind, generous

Knox said Bata was warm, kind, generous and an "incredible role model" who strove for excellence and was curious about many different subjects. She collected shoes from around the world, including in Africa and Asia.

"Everything she touched she wanted to exhibit design excellence," she said.

Appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1983, Bata was also an honorary naval captain for more than 24 years.

She also devoted her time to and held leadership roles in the National Design Council, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, and Junior Achievement.

Knox said there will be a private service and no funeral. The museum will honour her memory in some way in the coming weeks but no arrangements have been made.

Bata, whose health had been failing for some time, is survived by her four children Thomas Bata Jr., Christine Schmidt, Monica Pignal, and Rosemarie Bata, as well as nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 
Sonja Bata began collecting footwear in the 1940s, and her fascination with design and history led to a collection of more than 13,000 artifacts chronicling 4,500 years of history. (Bata Shoe Museum)

With files from CBC News