Walter Carsen: A Century of Philanthropy
On October 8, 2012, the Canadian arts community lost one of its most beloved and generous supporters. “I remember how his eyes lit up,” says Karen Kain, retired ballerina and the National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director, of her first encounter with Walter Carsen. He reminisced about his experience at a traditional geisha house during a business trip to Japan, sharing an anecdote around the dinner table that charmingly flaunted his worldliness. His passion for life and love of culture was contagious that evening. Twenty years later, Karen Kain and the National Ballet view him as a dear friend and look up to him with endless adoration.
Weeks before his father passed away, opera director Robert Carsen shared words of respect regarding his upbringing. “He has really given away what he has earned to the community, not just to the National Ballet, but to the Shaw Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO),” he says with admiration in his voice. “What makes me the most proud is that when he did all this, he did it anonymously for years and years and years.” Robert helped organize an elaborate event for his father’s birthday, less than two months before he died. Carsen turned 100 on August 14, 2012, arriving adorned all in white for his celebration with friends, family and appreciative artists.
Throughout adulthood, this arts philanthropist surrounded himself with a breadth of culture, attending the opera, ballet performances and exhibits. “He used to take us to [art] exhibitions and ask us to describe what we would see,” says Robert, reminiscing about his childhood with sister Johanni. When an extensive art collection accumulated in Carsen’s home, he contributed over 160 pieces to the AGO. After this humble donor exposed his name to the public and set an example for affluent Canadians, recognition came knocking on his door. He was awarded the Mont Blanc de la Culture Award for Philanthropy and a distinctive father-son joint Honorary Doctorate by York University.
Robert describes his father as someone with eclectic taste. Always open-minded, he embraced artists from different backgrounds and disciplines. His leading love was the National Ballet, viewing the company as a community he could call home. “I have sat with Walter during countless performances and my greatest pleasure has been to observe how much joy he took in watching the artists that he loved so much and supported so generously,” says Kain. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will be the next production to grace the stage and the first to mourn the loss of Carsen’s presence and applause.
The company’s headquarters and rehearsal space took his honourable name after a $1.5-million contribution to its construction. The Walter Carsen Centre for The National Ballet of Canada was built in 1995 and is located on the waterfront in Toronto. “I love the performing arts and particularly ballet, as it is a mixture of art forms — music, visual design, the body in motion and light,” says Carsen, who leaves behind words of wisdom for his son. “He told me to be true to myself and my instincts and my intuitions. My father has always followed that — he hasn’t tried to emulate anyone. He’s just listened to himself.”
Photography by Bruce Zinger