Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The National Arts Centre has announced that it will be the beneficiary of $10 million from philanthropists Janice and Earle O’Born, major champions of the Ottawa-based performing arts centre.V. Tony Hauser/Supplied

A day doesn’t go by that National Arts Centre (NAC) president and chief executive Christopher Deacon doesn’t get out of bed thinking about how he’s going to pay for the programming he envisions. “It’s a constant challenge to find resources to support the creative works our artists and directors want to do," Deacon told The Globe and Mail.

Now the load on Deacon’s mind has eased a bit. The Ottawa-based, bilingual performing-arts institution has announced that it is the beneficiary of $10-million from philanthropists Janice and Earle O’Born, major champions of the Crown corporation. Described by Deacon as “transformational," the donation is the largest ever received by the NAC. “I can tell you my step has been a lot lighter these last couple of months, knowing this news."

It has been a banner year for philanthropic endorsements of multidisciplinary arts centres in Canada. This spring, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity received $10-million from the Suncor Energy Foundation.

The NAC donation is not coincidental to the institution’s 50-year anniversary. “We are at historic crossroads,” says Deacon, who was elevated from orchestra music director to the top post in June, 2018. He’s referring to recent ambitious initiatives such as the Indigenous Theatre program and the $25-million National Creation Fund for new works in theatre, dance and music across the country. “The NAC needs friends and allies to respond to the challenges of what we’re trying to accomplish, and I can think of no better friends and allies than Earle and Janice O’Born.”

Born and raised in Winchester, England, Janice O’Born immigrated to Vancouver nearly 40 years ago to take up a sales director position with Revlon British Columbia. She now directs the National Arts Centre Foundation Board and is the chair of the charity arm of the Printing House, a Toronto-based, countrywide instant-printing company founded by Earle O’Born in 1961. The son of a coal man and factory-working mother, the 81-year-old Earle O’Born doesn’t see the $10-million donation as generosity.

“We’re investing in people,” he says, speaking with his wife from his no-frills midtown Printing House headquarters. "The people who write a cheque and hand it off, that’s generosity. We don’t do that. It’s very important for us to know who and what we’re helping.”

In 2016, the O’Borns invested $1.5-million in the NAC Orchestra’s ambitious Life Reflected piece, and have accompanied the production’s tours across Canada and Europe. “There’s no alchemy when it comes to these kind of donations," Deacon says. "With the O’Borns, I think it starts with their passionate commitment to Canada. And while they’re intrigued by the mission of the NAC, the clincher is that they have gotten to know us as people.”

The NAC’s budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year was $85-million. Small and large donations made up 9 per cent of NAC revenue. Parliamentary appropriations accounted for 43 per cent. Box office receipts, money generated from on-site commercial operations and amortization of capital funding contributed 48 per cent.

In addition to its annual appropriations, the federal government supplied $110.5-million in 2015 for the “architectural rejuvenation” of a facility that officially opened in 1969. A year later, an additional $114.9-million was granted for the renewal of the venue’s infrastructure.

For the past two years, Canadian Heritage denied the NAC’s request for $3.5-million annually to fund the Indigenous Theatre department.

The $10-million donation from the O’Borns doubles the highest amounts previously received by the NAC. Gail Asper and her husband Dr. Michael Paterson of Winnipeg donated $5-million to the National Creation Fund in 2016. A year later, Dr. Dianne Kipnes and Irving Kipnes of Edmonton gave $5-million to the National Creation Fund and the Kipnes Lantern, the illuminative glass tower located over the Centre’s Elgin Street entrance.

The O’Born donation is not earmarked to any specific fund, program or initiative. “We’re not controlling, but we love to have input as far as where the money goes,” says Janice O’Born, who started volunteering in a Winchester hospital on weekends as a teenager. “How is it going to impact? Who is it going to impact and how many people is it going to impact?”

While $10-million may seem like a big drop in a big bucket, the O’Borns view their donation more as a “pebble” that creates expanding waves in a sea. They point to Life Reflected, which told the stories of four Canadian women: Alice Munro, Amanda Todd, Roberta Bondar and Rita Joe.

“It’s an emotional piece," Janice O’Born says. “But not only that, it was created by four new Canadian composers. Their careers were launched, as were their visions of what they can do next and how they can do even better. As a result of our donation, more of that will come.”

The O’Borns, lead partners on the Life Reflected tour of Europe that began in England and ended in Stockholm, were “stunned” by the reception of the piece. “We as Canadians have a reputation of being nice,” Earle O’Born says. “But do you know what? We’re not only nice, we’re damn good.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe