Hey, you with the Cartier watch and the Gucci shoes. That’s right, you in the Jaguar convertible speeding off to that 12-bedroom country hideaway. Joan Chalmers wants to know why you aren’t spreading some of your wealth around to Canadian artists. As one of the top arts patrons in the country, Torontobased Chalmers has every right to ask. Turning 66 this week, she has devoted her life to funding, fostering and otherwise rallying around Canadian culture. And it irks her that so few wealthy individuals are helping to bankroll artists, most of whom barely scrape by at the best of times.
‘The public dollars aren’t there and the corporate dollars aren’t there at the moment,” says Chalmers. “There should be more money coming from the many families in Canada who probably are 50 times as well off as I am. There are people on Bay Street earning in one year what my entire holdings are.”
The support and encouragement of creative people is a cause that Chalmers shared with her late parents, former Maclean Hunter Ltd. chairman Floyd Chalmers and his wife, Jean. The senior Chalmerses gave millions of dollars and much of their time to dozens of organizations, including the Canadian Opera
Company and the National Ballet of Canada. Growing up in a household where art was revered and creators were frequent guests, Joan Chalmers came to share her parents’ passion. She has helped to establish and financially buttress institutions ranging from the Canadian Crafts Council to Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. The countless beneficiaries of her generosity, some of which is channelled through her Woodlawn Arts Foundation, include the Glenn Gould Foundation and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as well as such noncultural facilities as Toronto’s Casey House Hospice for people with AIDS. But Chalmers is known for giving a lot more than money. “Artists see her as this person who passionately loves what they do,” says William Boyle, CEO of Harbourfront Centre, a
Toronto cultural facility. “She’s down there in the trenches, sitting on boards and working as a volunteer. She never lords it over anybody. In fact, she’s quite shy and I think in some ways embarrassed by the money.”
Her father died last year at 94, three years after his wife’s death. And as his health deteriorated, Chalmers had increasingly become the manager of her family’s arts patronage. Much of that takes place through the Chalmers Fund, established in 1979 when Joan and her father each put up $500,000 towards artist training grants and national prizes for artists in various disciplines. Over the years, the family has increased the size of the fund, which is administered by the Ontario Arts Council. And last week, at a cere mony for this year’s 14 winners (who shared
$160,000), Chalmers pledged an additional $5 million from her father’s estate, bringing the total to $11 million. She also said that next year the awards will expand to celebrate an artistic director, an arts administrator and a documentary film-maker.
Chalmers’s voice broke when she told the crowd at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre that her father had “great faith in Canadian artists.” That faith is also central to Joan Chalmers. “She has always been—and I
think this feeling applies to a lot of craftspeople—one of us,” says potter Harlan House of Lonsdale, Ont., near Kingston. Over the 20 years he has known her, House has carried out a number of commissions for Chalmers, including a set of oversize dishes. “She said, ‘I would really like you to have a good time making them.’ Sometimes I refer to it as the Chalmers pleasure commission.” The Toronto house that the jovial Chalmers shares with her partner of eight years, businesswoman Barbra Amesbury, 44, is filled with works by Canadian artists and craftspeople. Even the doors, air-vent grates and bannisters are handmade works of art. Chalmers studied interior design at the Ontario College of Art, and then worked as a magazine art director before devoting herself full time to philanthropy in the 1960s. She frequently opens up her home to arts organizations for lobbying or fund-raising parties, partly she says to prove that crafts are more than just “macramé owls.”
In a sense, Joan Chalmers is the public face for both her and Amesbury, who collaborate on many projects. “Basically, Joan is Q more tactful than I am,” says f Amesbury. “They won’t let me ^ near a board. She can take more 2 of the crap than I can.” The two are currently working on a $250,000 project called Survivors,
in Search of a Voice, for which they have commissioned works inspired by the testimonials of breast-cancer survivors from 24 established Canadian female artists—including Vancouver’s Gathie Falk and Winnipeg’s Wanda Koop. Their aim is to generate discussion and raise money for women’s initiatives in cancer treatment. The show is to open next February in Toronto, then travel across the country.
One of the creators participating in the project is Dartmouth, N.S., weaver and sculptor Dawn MacNutt. The artist has known Chalmers for about 15 years. “I see her as much more than a patron,” says MacNutt. “I see her as a thoughtful, intellectual person who gives much more than money.”
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