I was intrigued to learn while recently shopping at a Bashas’ grocery store in Mesa, Arizona, that this family-owned grocer not only has its own public art gallery, but houses the largest collection of Western American & American Indian Art in the USA.
Eddie Basha Jr. began collecting art as a hobby in the ‘70s under the guidance of his Aunt Zelma. The hobby quickly grew into a passion that combined his keen interest in the history of the American West, his admiration of the American Indian and appreciation of art. The official name of the gallery is the - Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery - in honour of his aunt.
Visiting this gallery reminded me of the important role philanthropists play in shaping the culture of cities.
The Importance of Philanthropists
The Andrew Carnegie philanthropic legacy is legendary – he helped fund 2,509 libraries around the world from 1883 to 1929, including Calgary’s Memorial Park Library.
In Seattle, Paul Allen funded the entire cost of the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly Experience Music Project) and its Frank Gehry signature building in 2006.
In Mexico City, Carlos Slim did the same - building the striking Museo Soumaya in 2011 to house his 70,000 works of art including hundreds of modern masters. These two iconic museums have been the catalysts for creating urban vitality in their immediate neighbourhoods. The free admission helps the Museo Soumaya attract over 1 million visitors a year.
Then there’s Robert J. Ulrich, former CE0 & Chairman of Target. He funded the creation and operations of the world-class Musical Instruments Museum in Scottsdale and the acquisition of 15,000 instruments from 200 countries. Using the Target design and construction team, it took just five years from conception to completion.
Calgary’s Cultural Philanthropists
Perhaps Calgary’s greatest cultural philanthropist is Eric Harvie who helped establish the Glenbow Museum when his Glenbow Foundation donated 200,000 artifacts and $6 million (the equivalent of $45 million today and matched by the Province) to create the museum, which opened in 1966.
In the ‘80s, Max Bell and Martha Cohen each donated $1 million towards the construction of the Calgary Performing Arts Centre (now Arts Commons) for naming rights to the two theatres, while Jack Singer donated $1.5 million to get the concert hall naming rights.
In 2006, the Taylor Family became Calgary’s biggest cultural philanthropists with a $25 million donation to the University of Calgary to build the Taylor Family Digital Library and Quadrangle (total cost $206 million). This was followed, in 2010, by a $21 million donation to Mount Royal University to build the Taylor Family Performing Arts Centre and Bella Concert Hall at a cost of $90 million.
There are also a number of Calgary philanthropists – past and present - who donate to cultural endeavours without attaching their name to a building.
For example, Ron Mannix’s support of the arts began in 1987 with the $750,000 purchase of the Carthy Organ for the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
That was the genesis for his support of the International Organ Festival and Competition from 1990 to 2002, as well as building a collection of over 1,000 keyboard instruments. In 2003, he funded the creation of the Cantos Music Foundation in the historic Customs House building to house his growing collection and offer music programs. Cantos was the catalyst for the development of the National Music Centre, which houses his now 2,000+ rare instruments and artifact collection.
One of the most unique and ambitious examples of cultural philanthropy in Calgary is that of Jim and Sue Hill who not only built Inglewood’s Atlantic Avenue Art Block with a 15,000 square foot public art gallery on the top floor, but also fund operating costs and the curation, shipping and installation of three impressive contemporary exhibitions each year. FYI: Admission is free!
WANTED: More Cultural Philanthropists
The Basha Gallery got me thinking there should be a similar museum at Stampede Park, a “must-see” museum showcasing the Stampede’s 100+ year connection to western art, cowboy art, indigenous people and rodeo culture. An IMAX theatre attached would allow visitors to enjoy the “spills and thrills” of the Stampede experience (rodeo, chuckwagon races, midway, grandstand show) year-round. You would think in Calgary there would be a few philanthropists who would be all over this idea.
In reality, there aren’t many cultural philanthropists in our city. Both the Glenbow and Arts Commons have struggled for 15 years to find the funds needed to update spaces to meet 21st century expectations. One cultural champion told me there are probably only a dozen individuals in Calgary who are million dollar plus cultural philanthropists.
The philanthropy world has changed significantly since Eric Harvie’s day. Cultural groups now have to compete with schools, hospitals and illness groups (which used to be fully funded by governments) as well as newer groups (e.g. environmental) that didn’t exist in the 60s.
Great cities have several thriving museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls and theatres, each helping to manifest a sense of the city’s unique past and present.
Great cultural places are critical not only to creating an attractive City Centre for Calgarians to work, live and visit, but are also key to a successful economic development and tourism marketing and branding initiatives.