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Joan Chalmers turned philanthropy into activism

Joan Chalmers was more than an arts patron, she considered herself an ‘arts activist,’ and contributed to countless causes, of which she carefully curated and made sure to avoid excess bureaucracy.

John Reeves

Peter Caldwell has a favourite story about Joan Chalmers. Back in the 1980s, when he was running the now-defunct Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto, he drew up a list of the foundation's board members and their occupations. After describing this vice-president of such-and-such a bank, and that partner in so-and-so's law firm, he came to the name "Joan Chalmers" and didn't know what to write. The wealthy lady didn't have an official job, let alone a job title, so finally he settled for "arts patron."

When she read that label next to her name, Ms. Chalmers – whom the painter Charles Pachter once called a cross between Vanessa Redgrave and Annie Oakley – rounded on Mr. Caldwell and let him have it with both barrels. "What?" she barked. "Arts patron?" A young Mr. Caldwell, shocked, asked how he'd offended her. "I'm not an arts patron," she told him bluntly, "I'm an arts activist!"

Ms. Chalmers, who died Dec. 2 in Toronto at the age of 88 from injuries suffered in a fall, was much celebrated for her philanthropy, channelling millions of dollars toward Canada's artists and arts institutions; but she did far more than just dash off cheques with multiple zeroes. "She had very strong ideas about what she wanted to support," said Mr. Caldwell, now director and CEO of the Ontario Arts Council, "and she put her money where her mouth was."

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Often it was "first money." Ms. Chalmers, like her legendary father, Floyd S. Chalmers, loved to take a risk on new arts projects, making the initial contribution and urging public and private funders to follow suit. She saw it as her duty to help build Canadian arts and culture and she approached her self-imposed role with a missionary's zeal.

The late Urjo Kareda, long-time artistic director of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, wrote of once seeing Ms. Chalmers dive into a gathering of dignitaries, politicians and bureaucrats, right hand extended, and work the room tirelessly, like a great ambassador. As she had explained to Mr. Kareda, "there's a lot of work to be done here for the arts."

It wasn't just the arts, either, that benefited from her activism. In the 1990s, she and her partner, Barbra Kate Amesbury, staged a touring exhibition dedicated to battling breast cancer. That mix of art and fundraising stirred up some controversy, as did a much-publicized decision in 1996 to withdraw financial support from the Ontario Arts Council over a perceived excess of bureaucracy. The rift with the OAC was soon healed, but it served as a reminder that Ms. Chalmers's enormous generosity came with a clear purpose: it was meant to help artists, not shore up administrators.

Yet Ms. Chalmers was almost always, to use a Shakespearean phrase, "in the giving vein." The trait was in her blood. She was the child of serial philanthropists who lavished their time and energy on the arts even before they came into serious money.

Floyd Chalmers, a go-getting newspaper editor who rose to become president of the Maclean Hunter magazine empire, and his wife Jean (née Boxall), were tireless supporters of their country's burgeoning arts scene from the 1930s onwards, helping to establish the Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Stratford Festival, to list only a few now-august institutions.

Margaret Joan Chalmers, their second child and only daughter, was born May 30, 1928 in Toronto. From girlhood on she shared her mother's love of fine craftsmanship and later fondly remembered that her first job, at age 14, was helping at the downtown shop run by Ontario's craft guild. She studied interior architecture and design at what was then the Ontario College of Art, graduating in 1948. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, she worked as an art director for magazines, notably Canadian Homes and Gardens, Chatelaine and other titles published by Maclean-Hunter – although there was no nepotism involved; her father was initially unaware that she'd been hired.

In 1964, however, the family's status abruptly changed from well-off to rich. That year, Maclean-Hunter went public and Mr. Chalmers, who had sold half of his 22-per-cent share in the company's stock, received $1.7-million (about $13-million in today's dollars). That's when the serious giving began.

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Money was funnelled into the family's recently established Chalmers Foundation and dispersed widely to arts groups in Toronto and across the country. Ms. Chalmers left the magazine business and devoted herself to such new causes as the founding of Toronto's Young People's Theatre and – her special passion – advocating for the crafts community. She not only oversaw the creation in 1976 of the Ontario Crafts Council, she also bought a building for its headquarters.

"She really took a leadership role in the craft sector," said Emma Quin, the current CEO of the council, now called Craft Ontario. "She wanted to bring more professionalism to it and help members develop their business skills."

In 1973 the Chalmers family handed over the administration of its foundation funds to the Ontario Arts Council. The wide-ranging Chalmers Awards for Creativity and Excellence in the Arts, launched the year previously, became one of their most prominent contributions to the national arts scene. They included the annual $25,000 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award, which bolstered the careers of many significant playwrights, from David French to Djanet Sears.

The prolific George F. Walker won a record number of eight awards before they were discontinued in 2001. Ms. Chalmers was "a gracious strong woman with a real twinkle in her eye," Mr. Walker recalled. "She asked me once how many of my children had their educations paid for by the foundation. I told her all of them."

Ms. Chalmers took great pleasure in such news. As she stated in Iris Nowell's 1996 book about Canadian female philanthropists, Women Who Give Away Millions, one of her goals was "helping make lives better for creative people in this country."

Early on, Ms. Chalmers preferred to keep her arts activism behind the scenes. That began to change when she met Ms. Amesbury in the 1980s. Ms. Amesbury was formerly Bill Amesbury, a saucy singer-songwriter who had enjoyed some minor hits on the Canadian pop charts in the 1970s. After re-emerging as Barbra Amesbury following sex-reassignment surgery, she met Ms. Chalmers at a Christmas party in the mid-1980s. "I may have been a bad influence on her," Ms. Amesbury said with a laugh. She came to play the hellion to Ms. Chalmers's "patron saint."

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As a duo, their most publicized project was Survivors, In Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage, in which they commissioned 24 Canadian female artists to create works based on the stories of some 100 breast-cancer survivors. The resulting show opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1995, drawing huge crowds but also some criticism for what was deemed to be "victim art" and tensions when Ms. Chalmers and Ms. Amesbury had a falling-out with the museum's management over costs.

The pair ended up taking the travelling installation out of galleries and sending it to large shopping malls throughout Canada and the U.S. Used as a vehicle to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research, it became, in Ms. Amesbury's words, "the AIDS quilt for the cancer movement."

Ms. Amesbury also encouraged Ms. Chalmers to commission art for her own pleasure – and, of course, to encourage others to do the same. In 1990, the couple bought a home on Chestnut Park in Toronto's affluent Rosedale neighbourhood and spent close to $2-million completely renovating it with custom-made fixtures and furnishings by Canadian artists and craftspeople. Among its striking features were a pair of 14-foot-high, curved bronze doors created by one of Ms. Chalmers's favourite craftsmen, Gord Peteran.

"I got called over to Chestnut Park and Joan was marching around in her nightgown," Mr. Peteran remembered with amusement. "She showed me two giant holes in the walls and said, 'Fill those! Do something wonderful!'"

The home became a showplace and a centre for arts fundraisers. Ms. Chalmers lent it to such favourite causes as the ballet, the opera and the Glenn Gould Foundation. "Maureen Forrester did a concert in the living room," Ms. Amesbury said.

Ms. Chalmers sold the place in 1994, but there were other impressive homes, and not just in Toronto. They ranged from a farm in Mono Mills, Ont., to a house next door to Hollywood legend Claudette Colbert in Speightstown, Barbados. Ms. Colbert was a standoffish neighbour until Ms. Chalmers, an expert gardener, resurrected the movie star's dying bougainvillea vine. "Claudette fell in love with Joan after that," Ms. Amesbury said. "She could do no wrong." Ms. Chalmers and Ms. Colbert remained fast friends until the latter's death in 1996.

The year prior, Ms. Chalmers herself suffered a stroke, which marked the start of serious health problems. She eventually moved into a luxurious retirement residence, Hazelton Place, in 2006. She held court there surrounded by art and her many honours, which included companion of the Order of Canada, member of the Order of Ontario and the international Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award. As she grew frail, Mr. Peteran fashioned her another piece of practical art – a handmade cane.

Ms. Chalmers was predeceased by her parents, her brother, engineer and philanthropist Wallace Chalmers, and her sister-in-law, Clarice Chalmers. She is survived by her partner, Ms. Amesbury. There will be a private burial in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where the family rests, and Ms. Amesbury is planning to hold a wake in the spring, in the same celebratory spirit as the old Chalmers Awards.

It was during a luncheon for those awards, on her 70th birthday in May, 1998, that Ms. Chalmers performed one of her most memorable acts of generosity. After handing out the previously announced prizes, she suddenly began dispensing large cheques to 21 arts organizations in a dizzying display of spontaneous philanthropy. In 17 minutes, she gave away $1-million. The unwary recipients were gobsmacked and profoundly grateful for this reverse birthday gift. As they thanked her, Ms. Chalmers smiled through her tears.

"There was great joy in it," said Ms. Amesbury, summing up both that day's surprise give-away and Ms. Chalmers's lifelong habit of giving. "I think for Joan, that was how she felt loved."

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