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Toronto philanthropist, ballet lover and arts patron Walter Carsen dies, aged 100

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Karen Kain with Walter Carsen just before his 100th birthday in August. Carsen died on Oct. 8 (Cylla von Tiedemann photo).

Walter Carsen left an indelible impression on the arts in Toronto over his long and generous life, which ended on Thanksgiving day. He died peacefully at home, after having reached the age of 100 in August.

The National Ballet of Canada was probably the single largest beneficiary of Carsen’s largesse. He helped the company through financial difficulties in the 1990s and contributed to the building of the company’s professional administration and performance centre at Harbourfront’s Kings Landing.

He also established a valuable, $50,000 prize for excellence in the performing arts in 2001 and donated hundreds of prints and drawings to the Art Gallery of Ontario, among the many, many other contributions to artistic life in his adopted city and environs (he provided money for the Shaw Festival to restore the Royal George Theatre in the 1980s, for example).

In a statement this morning, National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain expressed deep gratitude and a sense of loss.

“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 wrote. “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. He will be deeply missed by every member of the National Ballet, dancers and staff alike.”

Kain points out that Carsen helped underwrite the expenses of 12 new productions, the last one being the company’s 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet.

On Aug. 14, Kain, many people from the National Ballet and other performing arts organizations helped Carsen celebrate his 100th birthday at a dinner held at the dance company’s Walter Carsen Centre.

“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. I particularly like the abstract nature of the art form and the absence of text – it really resonates with me,” Carsen told an interviewer ahead of his centenary party.

Carsen, who arrived in Canada from his native Germany in 1941, started an optical-supply business in his basement with wife Clementine — a business they grew sufficiently for him to be able to support a variety of cultural causes.

The philanthropist claimed that one of his grandmothers had been a mistress of composer Jacques Offenbach. He came from a music-loving family, but wasn’t himself artistically inclined. He and his wife instilled a love of music, dance and visual art in their two children, Johanni and Robert.

Robert Carsen is now one of the world’s most sought-after opera directors, whose work was most recently seen in Toronto in Canadian Opera Company productions of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigénie en Tauride.

Walter Carsen was an early advocate of philanthropy in the performing arts, suggesting many times in the early 1990s that, in the presence of cuts in public funds for the arts, it was up to private individuals and businesses to help ensure continued excellence in Canadian culture.

He advocated by example.

Carsen was named an Officer of the Order of Canada 10 years ago.

The Torontonian was also deeply interested in anything that would help bring more people into contact with visual and performing arts. “I think it is very important to experience and absorb the art that is around you – what is close to you,” he told an interviewer last summer. “I encourage people to become involved with living artists.  Having the opportunity to interact with them and learn from them is the best portal from which to enter the arts.”

After all, that was how his own passionate connections to the arts had begun.

John Terauds

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