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Donald Sobey stands in front of a painting he donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

The Nova Scotia businessman and Canadian art philanthropist Donald R. Sobey died Wednesday at the age of 86, the Empire Company announced.

Sobey, the namesake of the Sobey Art Award and a noted donor to the visual arts, devoted his professional career to his family’s grocery business, but expressed a lifelong connection to art through innovative philanthropy. In his teen years, he could be found bagging potatoes or chopping cabbage at the family store in New Glasgow, N.S. After graduating with a degree in commerce from Queen’s University, he joined management, working in real estate financing for the burgeoning business. In 1963, he moved to the board of directors at Empire, which had been established to diversify the family holdings. He was recognized as a particularly astute businessman at the company, which began trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1998. Sobey was appointed president in 1969, and chair in 1985.

After he retired in 2004 to serve as the company’s chair emeritus, he became increasingly involved in philanthropy, in particular at the National Gallery of Canada. There, he served as board chair from 2002 to 2008 and helped establish the gallery’s fundraising foundation, sitting on its board from 2007 until last year.

He traced his love of art back to a youthful encounter with murals by a young Maritime art teacher named Alex Colville that he had seen at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., in 1949, and his philanthropy always centred on advancing the careers of living Canadian artists.

The Parliament buildings are dwarfed by the giant spider Maman by artist Louise Bourgeois outside the National Gallery in Ottawa.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

His most significant contribution was the establishment of the annual Sobey Art Award. The award names five emerging artists from five regions to a shortlist and then hands $100,000 to the winner. With a total purse raised this year to $400,000 to funnel more money to its long-listed artists, the Sobey Award is among the richest visual arts prizes in the world and one of the most generous cultural prizes in Canada. The National Gallery announced this year that it was removing the 40-and-under age restriction on the prize in a bid to make it more open.

“His grassroots approach, and his vision to create the Sobey Art Award impacted the lives of thousands of emerging artists across the country,” gallery director Sasha Suda said in a statement Wednesday.

Sobey established an endowment fund in 2015 that helps cover the costs of artists representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, a tricky assignment that requires the selected candidate to produce work for the international stage on a short timeline and tight budget.

British Columbia artist Brian Jungen, the inaugural winner of the award in 2002, also praised Sobey’s philanthropy and unassuming personality. “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,” he said.

In another bid to further the careers of Canadian artists, Sobey established an endowment fund in 2015 that helps cover the costs of artists representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, a tricky assignment that requires the selected candidate to produce work for the international stage on a short timeline and tight budget.

A whale skeleton built with white, plastic, folding lawn chairs by Brian Jungen.

Sobey also encouraged the gallery to take risks in its acquisitions. During his time on the board, the gallery acquired Jungen’s Vienna (2003), Peter Doig’s canvas Grande Riviere (2001-2002), as well as Louise Bourgeois’s landmark sculpture Maman (1999), which sits outside the gallery on Sussex Drive in Ottawa.

A representative for Empire declined to identify a cause of death Wednesday. Sobey leaves his wife, Beth, his three children and five grandchildren.

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