image description


The staff, volunteers, and Board of Governors at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia are at a loss since the news of Donald Sobey’s passing in late March. He was an Honorary Governor, benefactor, and most importantly, a friend of the Gallery’s. His presence was deeply impactful and he provided immense support and leadership to the Gallery over the last 20 years.

Donald Sobey was well-known as one of Canada’s leading philanthropists, but it was his generosity in his home province of Nova Scotia that was extraordinary. Through the Donald R. Sobey Foundation, along with The Sobey Foundation, he recently donated 10-million dollars to the new AGNS building, a momentous contribution that will help shape art in Nova Scotia for generations to come. He also created numerous scholarships at post-secondary institutions, including University of Kings College, Cape Breton University, Dalhousie University, and Nova Scotia Community College, as he strongly believed in the impact of education.

His life-long love of Canadian art began watching his parents collect art and meeting artists throughout his early life, but it was ignited after a serendipitous visit to Mount Allison University in 1949 ­- a visit that would go on to change institutions and the lives of so many artists forever. It was after this visit that he began to develop a love for art and collecting it. Many years later Mr. Sobey became the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Board of Directors at the National Gallery, helping to bring an Atlantic Canadian perspective to the national stage.

During that time, Mr. Sobey saw an opportunity to create an award system that would support artists across Canada, and with some help, founded the Sobey Art Award in 2002. His vision was large and generous- he wanted to support artists from across the country, and ensure it was inclusive. This award has since become Canada’s most distinguished award for contemporary Canadian art, a vehicle for vibrant discussion. It is one of the biggest purse prizes in the contemporary art world, thanks to Mr. Sobey. As partner to the Award since its inception, the Gallery worked with Mr. Sobey to bring his vision to life, organizing and administering the Award and its accompanying exhibition. He believed in the power of art, and delighted in artists’ abilities to create, whether the work conveyed beauty, whimsy, or societal strife.

“A highlight of every Sobey Art Award was walking Mr. Sobey through the exhibition, hearing his questions, introducing him to artists. He was curious, charming, and funny. He was very serious about providing emerging artists with the professional environment the Gallery could offer, and ensuring they had the support to keep making work. His vision for artists was extraordinarily generous, and gave them, and us (curators and the public) a platform to have conversations about Canadian Contemporary Art that simply wasn’t there.” – Sarah Moore Fillmore, Chief Curator at AGNS and former chair of the jury for the Sobey Art Award.

By choosing to build the Sobey Art Award from Nova Scotia, Mr. Sobey ensured the national dialogue would not only include Atlantic Canada but would be cross-pollinated through exciting exchanges with curators, artists, and collectors from across the country. His savvy in anchoring business here was reflected in the Award’s ethos, and the region benefitted from that expansive vision.

He loved to champion the country’s best contemporary artists and advancing the appreciation of fine art overall. This love can be seen throughout the Gallery, as it has been the beneficiary of his appreciation, such as the extraordinary gift of Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief’s Wet Dream in 2019, among many others. Since 2001 Mr. Sobey’s love of art and support has been felt at the Gallery, and, over the years he, along with his family and foundations, have contributed numerous works including collections from David Milne, Frederick B. Nichols, and Annie Pootoogook, just to name a few.

Donald Sobey was a driving force for visual arts in Nova Scotia and across Canada. His generosity was extraordinary, his vision and dedication to supporting artists was unmatched. We look forward to ensuring his legacy as art-lover and patron lives on, providing space for the vibrant conversations artists lead to be heard and seen.

Lady in the Park, 1913, David Milne. Gift of Sumac Corporation Limited, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, 2018. Living Room, 2006, by Annie Pootoogook. Purchased with funds provided by the Sobey Art Foundation, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, 2007.
Lady in the Park, 1913, David Milne.
Gift of Sumac Corporation Limited, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, 2018.
Living Room, 2006, by Annie Pootoogook. Purchased with funds provided by the Sobey Art Foundation, Stellarton, Nova Scotia, 2007.

Stay up to date with the AGNS newsletter