Arts philanthropist Walter Carsen dies at 100

Philanthropist Walter Carsen, a significant supporter of the National Ballet of Canada, the Shaw Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario, has died at the age of 100.
Walter Carsen (in jacket) appears with the leads of the National Ballet's 1992 production of The Taming of the Shrew: (from left) Pierre Quinn, Martine Lamy, Gizella Witkowsky (seated), Sarah Green, Rex Harrington, Serge Lavoie and Karen Kain. (David Street/National Ballet)

Arts philanthropist Walter Carsen, a significant supporter of the National Ballet of Canada, the Shaw Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario, has died. He was 100.

Carsen died in Toronto on Monday, just six weeks after celebrations marking his 100th birthday.

A lover of dance, Carsen seldom missed a National Ballet performance.

Karen Kain, the company's artistic director and a former prima ballerina, said he was the most significant donor to the Toronto-based troupe in the past 20 years. She expressed deep sadness at his death.

"The National Ballet of Canada, in its entire history, has only ever had one patron like Walter Carsen. He helped us achieve what we wanted to do," Kain said in a statement released Wednesday.

"He was an inspiration through his generosity, leadership and great enthusiasm and he was also a great friend to the company. He was unfailingly in the audience at almost every performance and was a warm and encouraging presence for the dancers both backstage and in the rehearsal room."

When the ballet needed dedicated rehearsal space, Carsen helped fund the Walter Carsen Centre, the Arthur Erickson-designed space in Toronto that serves as the National Ballet's headquarters.

Walter Carsen, left, seen with Karen Kain at the 1996 opening of The Walter Carsen Centre, the National Ballet's Toronto headquarters. (Cylla von Tiedemann/National Ballet)

"When I see a need I believe in, I want to help. Money is here to be spent. Give it where you love it and where it gives pleasure to others," he told the Toronto Star in an article published in August.

He underwrote 12 new productions for the ballet, including The Taming of the Shrew in 1992, The Firebird in 2000, The Contract (The Pied Piper) in 2002, In The Upper Room in 2008, and Romeo and Juliet in 2011. He also supported the company's For the Glory of Mozart dance festival in 1991 and underwrote an artist-in residence program.

Carson also supported the troupe's 1998 tour to New York City and challenged other donors to give, with matching campaigns and advocacy among other philanthropists.

Supported AGO, Shaw Festival

Carsen's support also translated to other cultural institutions. A patron founder of the Art Gallery of Ontario, he gave to the gallery during the past 30 years. He was a pioneer collector of 20th century prints and donated more than 200 prints, paintings and sculptures, as well as his art library, to the AGO.

At Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.'s Shaw Festival, Carsen funded a renovation of the Royal George Theatre, transforming it into an Edwardian-era opera house, and the construction of a training, research and creative development centre backstage at the Festival Theatre. A  close friend of the Shaw Festival founder Brian Doherty, Carsen continued to buy the yellow roses for the lobby of the Royal George.

"His passionate commitment to the Shaw Festival helped to build a lasting legacy," the festival said in a statement released Wednesday. "But it was not his way simply to write a cheque: he engaged deeply to understand what an organization needed most, and worked with them to achieve it."

In 2001, he created the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in Performing Arts, presented annually in either theatre, music or dance. The prize is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Encouraged wealthy donors

German-born Carsen attended school in Britain in the 1930s and was deported to Canada as an enemy alien. He was so well treated in Canada, he decided to stay and served in the Canadian Forces.

He later launched a distribution business for photographic and optical goods from the basement of his home. It grew to become the largest independent supplier in Canada. His son, theatre and opera director Robert Carsen, has said that though his father was never among the super-rich, he always gave generously.

He loved the arts, including dance, theatre and visual art, and was a significant collector. Among other organizations he supported were the Art Galleries of Hamilton and Windsor, the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant and the United Way, which receives an annual donation from his endowment.

At first, Carsen gave anonymously, but later in life he became a public advocate, encouraging wealthy people to give.  

"In Canada especially, public funding is not well established," he said in an interview with the The Financial Post in 1993.

"It is my firm conviction that if we want ‘world-class’ organizations and artists, then the private sector has to get involved."

At the 2000 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, Carsen received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. He was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.