Walter (Care Bear) Carsen has earned a new pair of wings. The retired Toronto businessman and long-time patron saint to the National Ballet of Canada, Shaw Festival and numerous other Canadian arts organizations, will be recognized as one of the world's top philanthropists on Monday, when the International Society of the Performing Arts Foundation presents him with its 2002 Angel Award.
"The performing arts needs its angels," says the nonagenarian Carsen, adding that he is deeply honoured to be joining the ranks of such prestigious past winners as the Mellon Foundation, BMW, Alberto Vilar and Calgarian Martha Cohen (the only other Canadian to win the award).
ISPA, a nonprofit group founded in 1949, has more than 600 members from 50 countries, including the directors and executives of concert halls, festivals, companies and cultural offices from Sydney to Stockholm.
The Angel Award is presented each year to individuals and organizations that have demonstrated "a significant and lasting contribution to the support of the performing arts which transcends the boundaries of one country or institution, and merits international recognition."
Recently named an officer of the Order of Canada, Carsen is best known as the single most devoted supporter in the history of the National Ballet of Canada. The Walter Carsen Centre for the National Ballet of Canada, which opened in 1996, was thus named in honour of Carsen's lead $1.5-million contribution to the cost of the company's first permanent home, located on the Toronto waterfront.
Two years ago, Carsen launched a successful $1-million fundraising campaign for the company, matching every dollar raised up to $500,000. Carsen also sponsors the National Ballet School of Canada's artist-in-residence program and has helped mount numerous new productions, including The Taming of the Shrew in 1991 and John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet in 1995. (Carsen underwrote both, to the tune of $1-million each.)
"Walter Carsen has elevated us to new heights artistically through his belief and generosity," says the National Ballet's artistic director, James Kudelka. "We wish there were more people like Walter, but recognize, and love, that he is entirely unique."
Born in Cologne, the grandson of a concert pianist, Carsen fled Nazi Germany in 1941. While in London, where he was learning the optical trade, he was interned as an enemy alien and shipped to Canada. He was detained here for two years before convincing authorities he was on their side.
Shortly thereafter, he joined the Canadian army as an engineer, rising to the rank of corporal. After the war, Carsen returned to Europe on a trade mission, where he obtained the Canadian marketing rights to a range of optical and photographic products. He began building a technological empire from the basement of his Forest Hill bungalow. And by the time he sold his company in 1962, it boasted annual sales of $8-million to $10-million.
After his retirement, Carsen became a serious art collector. A patron founder of the Art Gallery of Ontario, he has donated more than 150 works to the institution, including an important sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz.
Carsen was given the nickname Care Bear by grateful members of his tennis club after he redesigned the club's garden. Today, a huge collection of stuffed teddy bears, all gifts from friends, are proudly displayed next to priceless works of art in his downtown home.
In the early eighties, Carsen turned his affection to the National Ballet after seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet. But he remained a reclusive donor until 1991, when he finally decided to go public in hopes of encouraging other people to "dish out."
"The arts arouse me to a point where nothing else can," Carsen once said. "They lift you out of your daily life into another world and purify your thoughts. If the arts are meaningful, the private sector has to do more."
In 2001, he created the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, administered by the Canada Council and worth $50,000. In addition to his arts philanthropy, Mr. Carsen recently established the Walter Carsen Fund for the Homeless.
In his modest manner, Carsen tries to shrug off the ISPA award. Secretly, though, you can tell he's delighted.
"I don't really like to go out very much," says Carsen, who will be flying to New York to receive his award. "I'm over 90 years, you know. But this is a real honour. And [the trip]is only two days."