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Walter Carsen, left, and Reid Anderson, artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada in 1991. (David Street/National Ballet of Canada)
Walter Carsen, left, and Reid Anderson, artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada in 1991. (David Street/National Ballet of Canada)

Appreciation

Walter Carsen’s largesse was a gift to the country that gave him refuge Add to ...

Walter Carsen, who passed away Oct. 8 at the grand age of 100, was one of this country’s greatest philanthropists. His name is forever entwined with the arts in Canada. The National Ballet of Canada’s home is the Walter Carsen Centre. He gave the Art Gallery of Ontario the Walter Carsen Reading Room in its new reference library. The Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing arts recognizes lifetime careers in dance, theatre and music.

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And then there are his other gifts. Mr. Carsen subsidized the refurbishment of the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre and helped build the Christopher’s Loft rehearsal space. The Dancer Transition Resource Centre was important to him because it helped former dancers find new careers. He also sponsored Canada’s National Ballet School’s artist-in-residence program. Mr. Carsen was an avid art collector, not for investment, but for joy he found in sculpture and paintings. The Art Galleries of Ontario, Hamilton, Windsor, St. Catharines and Oshawa all have works in their collections donated by Mr. Carsen.

In a way, Mr. Carsen represented Old Europe. He was the epitome of continental sophistication, well versed in politics, economics and the arts. Attending performances of dance, opera and theatre was the routine and not the exception. This carried over into the lifestyle of his children. His son, Robert Carsen, an acclaimed Europe-based stage director of opera, and Johanni Carsen, a Montreal potter and psychotherapist, grew up attending theatres, museums and art galleries in both Toronto and New York.

Mr. Carsen was born in Cologne, Germany into a family of assimilated Jews, the grandson of a concert pianist, and the stepson of a prominent lawyer. His love of the arts began in this cultured family. In 1938, he went to England to escape the Nazi threat. When war broke out, he was part of the round up of German aliens, even though he was a Jewish refugee. German aliens were given the chance to emigrate to the British dominions, which is how Mr. Carsen ended up in Toronto. Here he established a business in optical equipment. His success in the corporate world also embraced real estate development. This was the source of the wealth which fueled his philanthropy. Mr. Carsen was a proud Canadian, and he regarded his largesse as a gift to the country that had given him refuge.

In turn, Mr. Carsen was honoured by the country he came to love. In 1995, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada and in 2002 he was made an Officer of the Order. He became an honourary member of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association in 1997 and received an honourary degree from York University in 2005. The latter was a joint honour bestowed both on Mr. Carsen and his son Robert. He considered being on stage with his famous son as one of the high points of his life.

In the latter stages of his life, Mr. Carsen devoted himself to the National Ballet. He underwrote 12 new productions, as well as supporting the company’s 1998 tour to New York City. He helped fundraise through matching dollar campaigns. There are philanthropists who give at a distance, and then there is Mr. Carsen. He needed a personal tie to the artists, and it is no surprise that Mr. Carsen saw the dancers as his children.

Walter Carsen lived for the arts. He could be found in his favourite seat at the ballet bubbling with enthusiasm about the productions and the performers. He came alive in the theatre and his joy was infectious.

Remembering Walter Carsen: Readers share their memories

"As a young actor at the Shaw Festival, we always looked forward with anticipation to seeing Walter every year.  He always knew us all by name and encouraged and supported everything we did.  Even if it was a one-line part.  To this day I go to work and his largesse is there to see.  Beautiful fresh roses gracing the lobby of the Royal George Theatre, the theatre he personally refurbished.  His nickname was "Care Bear", and we loved him, and will miss him dearly.  Thank you Walter." 

- Peter Krantz

"I had the privilege of assisting Walter with his charitable good work through United Way Toronto where he established a Fund to support programs for the homeless. I will always remember his response when asked if his concern for people related to his interest in the arts.

He replied that 'It came from an interest in the human condition.  All great art is about human feelings, human emotions.  It gives us the opportunity to understand human suffering and misery.  Literature, dance, opera — all these teach us where we are from, where we should be going, what life is.  Art can help us become better people.  Homeless people struggle with a lot of problems: abuse at home, lack of education, drugs.  But we must not judge them.  I strongly believe we must encourage a sensitivity in our community, from one person to another, about human needs.  That is my vision.  We are one community.'

...and that is the Walter Carsen we will always remember and keep close to our hearts."

- Lucia Stephenson

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