The idea for the Sobey Art Award arose in 2001, when Donald R. Sobey — then-Chairman of both the Nova Scotia-based Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada Board of Trustees — spoke to former National Gallery Director Pierre Théberge about the Foundation sponsoring an art prize.
Given the lack of major contemporary art prizes in Canada at the time, Théberge was keen on the idea of an award that would raise the prestige and profile of contemporary art and the work of Canadian artists. Sobey agreed, and the Sobey Art Award was born.
Inaugurated in November 2001, the Sobey Art Award was administered for nearly 15 years by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which was instrumental in making the Award what it is today. Since the first award in 2002, it has highlighted the work of over 350 artists, with winners such as Abbas Akhavan, David Altmejd, Brian Jungen, Nadia Myre and Annie Pootoogook, among others. In December 2015, administration of the Sobey Art Award was transferred to the National Gallery of Canada.
On January 29, 2018, the Sobey Art Foundation announced major enhancements to the annual prize structure of the Sobey Art Award. An important gift by the Donald R. Sobey Foundation and re-investment from the Sobey Art Foundation will support targeted funds to directly benefit Canadian artists through the Award.