The National Gallery of Canada mourns the loss of Donald R. Sobey, one of Canada’s greatest cultural philanthropists who loved championing the country’s best contemporary artists and advancing the appreciation of fine art more broadly.
Mr. Sobey’s contribution to the National Gallery of Canada has been invaluable. He served as the Gallery’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2008 and was a founding member of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation Board of Directors from 2007 to 2020.
During his tenure, Mr. Sobey encouraged the museum to take risks and become a catalyst for national conversations on art. In this period, the Gallery acquired Brian Jungen’s Vienna (2003), Peter Doig’s magnificent and much-loved canvas Grande Riviere (2001–2002) as well as Louise Bourgeois’s landmark sculpture Maman (1999).
In the visionary spirit of increasing the awareness of our nation’s contemporary art, he founded the Sobey Art Award in 2002. This preeminent award now possesses the largest purse of any art prize internationally, and continues to bring greater visibility to emerging artists throughout the country while celebrating the various regions where they live and work.
“Donald R. Sobey believed in artists, and championing their work from every region of the country. His grassroots approach, and his vision to create the Sobey Art Award impacted the lives of thousands of emerging artists across the country. He will be deeply missed by all of us at the National Gallery of Canada,” said Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada.
“Over 20 years I had the pleasure of working with Donald Sobey and learning from his passion for Canadian and international artists. His unflagging, generous and loyal support has not only touched so many artists’ lives but also so many Canadians who were introduced to the best of the visual artists due to his philanthropy. This is an immense loss,” said Kitty Scott, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Canada.
“It was wonderful to have known Donald Sobey. His outstanding generosity and support for the visual arts in Canada was remarkable, and his unpretentious nature and kindness will be sorely missed by many. It was a great honour to have received the initial Sobey Award, but it was a true pleasure to have met the unique man himself. I always enjoyed his company over the years, and will miss him dearly,” said artist Brian Jungen.
Since 1997, Mr. Sobey and his family supported many initiatives at the National Gallery of Canada, including the exhibitions The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation (1996), Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons (2020-22) as well as the creation of the Donald and Beth Sobey Chief Curator’s Research Endowment. His generosity made possible notable acquisitions such as Joe Fafard’s beloved Running Horses (2017) and in 2012 he donated Michel de Broin’s stunning public sculpture Majestic (2011).
In 2015, Mr. Sobey gave $2 million to establish the Canadian Artists in Venice Endowment Fund to provide vital assistance to artists representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, the iconic international biennial art exhibition. His hope was that partnering with other Canadian philanthropists would establish sustainable support for Canada’s presence in Venice, with a transformative impact on the place of Canadian artists on the world stage.
In recognition of Donald Sobey’s leadership, the National Gallery of Canada unveiled the Donald R. Sobey Family Gallery in 2015—the first exhibition space to be named in recognition of a donor in the institution’s history.
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