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giving changed

Jim and Sandra Pitblado watch a rehearsal at the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, Oct. 26, 2011.Kevin Van Paassen

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

When wealthy developer Michael Audain is not building condos, he collects art, everything from 19th-century Haida masks to the latest from Vancouver's avant-garde. He loves the art of British Columbia – and he loves the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 2005, he gave the gallery $2-million to endow a curatorship of B.C. art. In 2008, he gave another $2-million to help buy the work of emerging B.C. artists. He also plans to contribute to the gallery's $300-million campaign to build a new home. And this weekend, the gallery unveils an exhibition of his private collection – giving hope he will one day donate that art permanently, as he has done with some pieces already.

The country's arts institutions rely increasingly on generous supporters like Audain. Government grants are static, and arts groups can't make the broad humanitarian appeals that health and development charities use to inspire small contributions from vast numbers of donors. In 2007, the last year numbers were tracked, a mere 3 per cent of Canadians' total donations went to the arts.

"We just don't have bike-a-thons to support the COC," jokes businessman Philip Deck, president of the board of the Canadian Opera Company.

That leaves arts groups increasingly dependent on a fund-raising niche: the small numbers of the very well off who give out of a personal passion for the arts – and for the cachet of having a hand in what appears on the stages and walls of national cultural institutions.

It's an intensifying relationship that raises some tricky questions: Can Canadian arts groups court enough new donors to copy the American model, where donations can cover up to half an institution's costs? And, if they succeed, how will that dependency on wealthy patrons affect the art they create?

Pointing to supporters like Audain, or Michael Lee-Chin's $30-million gift to the Royal Ontario Museum's renovation, arts fundraisers say Canadians are increasingly offering large gifts, and hope that trend will continue.

"People give money for two reasons, to save lives or to transform lives," says Toronto arts consultant Dory Vanderhoof. "I think we are getting more sophisticated about how the arts transform lives."

Philanthropists are also optimistic about others joining their ranks. Retired investment executive Jim Pitblado, a long-time supporter of the National Ballet of Canada and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, points out that Canadian wealth is newer than the fortunes that built U.S. arts institutions in the era before income tax, but he believes it is being tapped.

"Could it do more? Yes. Is it focused on education and health care? Yes. But increasingly the arts are participating … I think it will grow."

Arts fundraisers are certainly banking on that, and go to great lengths to nurture relationships with philanthropists, involving them in both the art and the artistic community.

"For large gifts, you try and design an individual gift for a donor that suits their interests," says Alexander Neef, the COC's general director. "If somebody hates Mozart, you wouldn't ask that person to underwrite a Mozart opera."

Instead, at the most exalted end of the spectrum, the COC will occasionally fly program sponsors to other cities to see a director or singer who is going to be working on the opera they are underwriting. On a smaller scale, Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company has gathered together a club of 50 women who pay $1,000 each to sponsor a female-centric play each season.

In exchange, donors want a front-row seat to the best possible show. "I want to make sure when I go the opera or the ballet, that it's world-class; I want to invest in it," says arts patron George Fierheller. "I am being a little crass when I say you give a large donation to get seats in the front row, but it's true."

There are risks to the strategy, however. It certainly doesn't dispel the notion that the arts are elitist, the image of rich people swanning around at black-tie galas that Prime Minister Stephen Harper so infamously mocked during his 2008 election campaign.

"I worry sometimes that with our dinners and our events we are alienating some of the population who can't give a million," says Halifax fundraiser and volunteer Ruth Goldbloom, who led the campaign to create the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

Courting the rich also leaves arts groups considering at what point they have to say no to powerful donors.

Arts administrators still shake their heads over the infamous case of Ottawa Senator player Alexei Yashin, who backed out of his $1-million gift to the National Arts Centre in 1999 after it was revealed the deal was to include consulting fees for his parents in exchange for booking Russian artists for the NAC. The NAC turned that disaster into a now-mythic public-relations coup as many other donors stepped up to raise the missing money.

Not wishing to criticize donors, fundraisers insist such cases are rare, and usually indicate the relationship with the donor was mismanaged.

"The familiarity with philanthropy wasn't there yet," says Darrell Gregersen, who headed the National Arts Centre Foundation after the Yashin fiasco and who now heads Ontario's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation. "We often feel we have only one chance [to ask the donor] We sense we have to jump in and 'give in.' You really need to build a relationship."

The most laborious Canadian case of a mismanaged relationship with an arts patron was that of the McMichael Canadian Collection.

It was only after the death of art collector Robert McMichael in 2003 that the gallery he had founded in Kleinburg, Ont., finally resolved a dispute with him that paralyzed it for decades. McMichael did not wish the institution devoted to the Group of Seven to include the contemporary art professional curators had added to keep the collection vibrant.

Public collections in Canada are highly dependent on donated works. And donors can subtly push museums in particular directions, as they give the art that reflects their tastes. The Art Gallery of Ontario, for example, had never seriously collected the decorative arts when newspaper magnate Kenneth Thomson offered it a gift of art worth $300-million, including the ship models now displayed in the gallery's basement.

In some cases, a donor's generosity can end up unfairly burdening a public institution. In 2009, the VAG was left an estate by Eliza Anne Winn, a donor unknown to the institution who stipulated the money be used to buy art by the Group of Seven. Last year, the gallery used the money to purchase an Arthur Lismer painting for $1.2-million but the Winn trust does not include any provision for funds to look after the art.

For now, however, managing big-money relationships is a problem Canadian fundraisers might wish they faced more often.

"We are not in a situation like some of the big companies in the United States where somebody gives a large gift and specifies the project and the director," the COC's Neef said. "The gifts are not large enough to justify that kind of influence."

But if a sudden emergence of new Medicis seems unlikely, arts groups do hope to cash in as the baby boomers inherit their parents' money.

Even if that happens, though, arts groups also need to broaden their donor base beyond the usual suspects.

"We have a relatively small group of people who are philanthropic to the core ... but [finding]the next generation is really tricky," says Soulpepper's executive director Leslie Lester.

The solution is engaging donors in the arts. Lester says her company's patrons never just write cheques but give because they're deeply interested in the art their money is supporting.

Or, as one fundraiser puts it, you give to the hospital hoping you won't go there, you give to the arts, hoping you will.