A childhood interest in playing piano kick-started Michael Koerner's lifelong attraction to the arts, a devotion that has led him to donate thousands of hours of his time and millions of dollars of his money to Canada's art scene.
That contribution has earned Mr. Koerner this year's Edmund C. Bovey Award for leadership support of the arts from the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada.
Mr. Koerner, 77, has preserved a low profile for his private venture capital firm, Canada Overseas Investments Ltd., which has invested mainly in what he calls "innovative low-tech businesses." But he has a much more visible presence in the arts community, where he has made large financial donations and served on many arts boards and organizations.
Two of his recent contributions have made a splash in Toronto.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he has been a volunteer for decades and was president for several years in the 1980s, Mr. Koerner wrote cheques for $7.5-million -- $5-million to endow a new director's position, and $2.5-million toward the dramatic Frank Gehry redesign of the facility.
He also donated $4-million in cash and $1-million in antique musical instruments to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which is naming a new concert hall in its renovated headquarters after Mr. Koerner and his wife, Sonja.
Among the instruments he's donating are several harpsichords and chamber organs, which will not only be on display, but will be played by students and professionals on stage at the conservatory.
"Instruments shouldn't be in a museum," Mr. Koerner said yesterday. "They should be in a living environment where they are played and heard."
Mr. Koerner is an accomplished keyboard player himself, a skill he has maintained since his childhood music lessons. The love of music is what started -- and maintained -- his interest in the arts, he said. "Music is very much a part of my daily existence." But Mr. Koerner's support for the arts goes far beyond mainstream organizations.
Barbara Willis Sweete, one of the founders of acclaimed Toronto film production company Rhombus Media Inc., credits Mr. Koerner with giving her organization its start.
About 27 years ago, she and her partners, just out of film school, were looking for financing for a film called Music for Wilderness Lake, a filmed outdoor concert performance of a piece written by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.
Mr. Koerner stepped up to the plate to support a project that was unlikely to make any money and, in the process, "launched us on our careers," Ms. Sweete said.
Mr. Koerner is "amazingly adventurous" in his support of the arts, she said. "He's a philanthropic and altruistic person. It's not just about good investments, it's about supporting culture."
Mr. Koerner was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928 and moved to British Columbia with his family in 1939. His father, who had owned a lumber business in Europe, became a big player in that industry in Canada, building up a fortune.
Mr. Koerner said he was strongly influenced by his father, who was also an arts patron and donated a large collection of northwest native art to help establish the University of British Columbia's museum of anthropology.
Mr. Koerner studied at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he still sits on the governing board.
As well as his service at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mr. Koerner has done volunteer work at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Ballet School, and the Ontario Arts Council Foundation. He also helped create the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada-- a project conceived by renowned publisher and patron of the arts Floyd Chalmers.
Mr. Koerner describes Mr. Chalmers as a key mentor, and "one of our best philanthropists."
Mr. Chalmers personified the philosophy that business leaders "need to put something back into the community [and that]volunteerism is the way to do it," he said.
Mr. Koerner has followed in those footsteps.
"He's absolutely reliable and solid -- when he makes a commitment to something, he's there," said Billie Bridgman, president of the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada.
Matthew Teitelbaum, chief executive officer of the Art Gallery of Ontario, described Mr. Koerner as an "engaged and focused" donor, who "wants to reinforce the basic values" of the institutions he gives money to.
Mr. Koerner does not seek the spotlight for his work, but is highly effective, added Hal Jackman, Ontario's former lieutenant-governor and also a big supporter of the arts.