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Features / March 15, 2013

Sobey At 10: A Family Shapes a National Prize

Stellarton, Nova Scotia, population just shy of 4,800, sits at the tip of a long finger of salt water, poking south from the Northumberland Strait into the silty earth of Pictou County. It’s an old coal town, founded in the late 19th century to mine the rich veins sitting just below the scrubby field grasses that carpet the rolling hills here like a three-day-old beard. Stellarton is riven underground with a network of mining tunnels; in 2009, North Foord Street, one of the town’s main arteries, collapsed, leaving a sinkhole 30 feet deep.

Rolling through a sparse subdivision and past a deep, slate-grey fissure in the earth—one of the town’s functioning open-pit coal mines—takes you to King Street, where a pair of conjoined two-storey brick office buildings sits across from a parking lot.

If this looks like the last place a splashy display of national cultural import might call home, well, fair enough. But looks can be deceiving. “EMPIRE,” reads the sign above the door that leads to the holding company and home base for the Sobey Group of Companies, and the veritable birthplace of what is likely the country’s most significant art prize, the Sobey Art Award. And if not its most significant, then surely its most visible: since 2002, the Sobey has injected into the Canadian visual-art world a shot of pure adrenaline. With deliberate spectacle, it brings pomp and glamour to a world of quiet reticence, and puts its money where its mouth is: $50,000 to the winner, $5,000 to each of the four finalists, every year, and an exhibition of their work.

For its 10th-anniversary edition in Toronto last year, no expense was spared: all in, the tab for the exhibition—with transporting artists, curators, and work, with dinners, splashy parties and after-parties free-flowing with cheer—tipped $400,000.

Sobey largesse shoulders visual art—for a moment, anyway—front and centre into the Canadian cultural conversation. “People started emailing my mother —‘is this your kid?’” laughs Raphaëlle de Groot, the 2012 winner. “They would normally have no interest in contemporary art, but since it’s a big prize, for the general public, it creates a reference point.”

It does this with a distinctly Maritime flair, culminating on presentation night with bottomless barrels of beer and wine, and a late-night party open to all comers. “The day we start checking names at the door,” says Ray Cronin, director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which administers the prize for the Sobey Foundation, “is the day we’re done. We needed to get past the idea that because the art is serious, everything around it has to be funereal.”

In its 10 years, the Sobey has also become one of Canada’s most vital cultural institutions. The Sobey longlists—25 artists, five from each of five regions, who get whittled down to one per region for jury deliberation—are a clearing house of Canadian art history in its perpetually most recent edition. Denise Markonish, whose massive “Oh, Canada” show at MASS MoCA is the biggest platform for contemporary Canadian art ever mounted outside this country’s borders, was determined to craft a fresh, youthful take; as she crisscrossed a vast, unfamiliar landscape, the Sobey lists were her compass.

Not that the prize is without its dramas. Its regional model—which culls a finalist from the West Coast and Yukon, from the Prairies and the North, from Ontario, from Quebec and from the Atlantic—has been criticized by some as parochially non-representative of the cultural landscape. Its strict under-40 age restriction strikes others as arbitrarily exclusive. And there’s grousing over its propensity for repeat nominees. Some artists are longlisted almost annually; several have been finalists twice. De Groot was named to either the longlist or shortlist five times in her home province of Quebec in the award’s first 10 years. In 2010, as a counterbalance, Ontario juror Philip Monk composed a list exclusively of first-timers.

Even some artists picked as finalists have chafed at being put on very public display as part of the spectacle the Sobey demands. Not everyone accepts: after twice reaching the shortlist as the Ontario nominee, Shary Boyle, who is set to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale this year, declined to participate in the competition a third time.

None of this is lost on Rob Sobey, the garrulous, open-armed 45-year-old who has become the prize’s public face. “Is it meaningful? Is it sound? Are the boundaries drawn properly?” he says. “We haven’t really been called to the mat on any of that—yet. But we’re always waiting for the shitstorm.”

With his easy charm and upbeat chattiness, Rob makes an ideal frontman. Not as far as he’s concerned, though. “Dad doesn’t like speaking in public, and I don’t mind it,” he says. “But I always tell him: this is you, man.” Dad, by the way, is Donald Sobey, who hatched the idea of the prize two years before its launch, with the support of his brother David and other family trustees. Not long after it was launched, he started to deflect credit, and the spotlight. “He threw the ball over the wall, and I ran to get it,” Rob smiles. “I’m this unfortunate surrogate, or avatar. What everyone wants is Dad. I want Dad.”

Quietly, so quietly, Donald has slipped into the background. But he can’t slip far enough to escape simple fact. “Donald always gives the whole family full credit,” Cronin says. “But really and truly, from the beginning, he was the force behind it.”


November 2012. It’s an unseasonably warm night in Toronto, and throngs of people spill out of the broad canopy of tents pitched in the parking lot of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Rob surveys the scene from a small stage as waiters navigate a tightly packed crowd with trays of canapés. Even through the speeches and the presentation itself, the bar never closes.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the Sobey Art Award and, as ever, it’s a loose, raucous, ebullient affair. “Everyone having a good time?” Rob asks, to an enthusiastic ripple of applause. Downstage, Rob nods to his father, who smiles uncomfortably. “In attracting him here today, I promised Dad he wouldn’t have to say a word—unless he wants to.” Donald laughs, shifting his long, reedy frame from foot to foot, and shakes his head. Rob continues: “Dad—Donald—without your efforts 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. So, thank you.” A big, loud cheer bursts up from the crowd, and Donald turns a visible shade of pink.

Public attention, let alone credit, rests uneasily on Donald. A couple of months earlier, he held a small dinner party for the Sobey Art Award brain trust at his and his wife Beth’s home, perched beachside on the Northumberland Strait in Pictou County. After dinner, Cronin led an informal tour. As he spoke, Donald, a bashful, quietly friendly presence, deferred, nodding his approvals.

The house is generous, but far too homey to be deemed a mansion, and it’s stuffed with art that would drive any museum director in Canada to salivation: here a pair of remarkable Emily Carrs, there a clutch of David Milnes, in the hallway an early, semi-figurative Paul-Émile Borduas, over the fireplace a spectacular Lawren Harris. In the dining room, one wall is tiled with dark, small works by Jean Paul Lemieux, painted from photographs his sister took on a Brownie camera.

Cronin stopped at a small painting by John Lyman, of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Donald bought it when he was in his 20s. It was his first. Donald’s father, Frank H., the family’s patriarch, built the family grocery empire from his own father’s meat wagon, selling door to door in Stellarton. In time, he became a notable art collector himself. Cronin asked Donald if he learned from Frank H.

“No!” Donald laughed, suddenly impassioned. “I didn’t grow up with anything! We had calendars—my mother loved calendars, with big pictures. I was the first one who ever bought a painting”—the Lyman—“and my father kind of liked it. So, when he built a bigger house, he wanted to have art.” He smiled. “He got to be a better collector, though.”

This bigger house, in nearby Abercrombie, displays Frank H. and his wife Irene’s collection. Known as the Crombie House, it is open to the public, and is as good a museum of Canadian historical art as you’ll find. A bedroom is filled with Milnes; opposite a wall of Krieghoffs, Moonlight (1916–17), a big, moody Tom Thomson canvas, lusted after by the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s “Painting Canada” exhibition, hangs in the dining room. (It was deemed too fragile to travel.)

The Sobey Art Foundation was founded to safeguard Frank H. and Irene’s collection. When Frank H. died in 1985, the collection drew a legion of courting institutions more than happy to take it off the family’s hands by way of donation. The foundation signalled that it wasn’t going anywhere. “We thought it was important that the collection be kept right here, in the community, where people could see it,” says Donald’s older brother David. This winter, the Crombie House underwent a multimillion dollar renovation to help make it more public-friendly.

In 2001, Donald, the youngest of Frank H.’s three sons (Bill, the eldest, died in 1989), had an idea to broaden the foundation’s scope. He was the chairman of the board of trustees at the National Gallery of Canada, and he put it to then-director Pierre Théberge: what if the foundation sponsored a prize, and what would it be?

Théberge came back with an idea. “He said, ‘Look, there’s a space no one has built, and that’s for contemporary art,’” Donald says. He was intrigued. He had spent decades assembling a historical collection (with some notable departures, like his handful of works by British painter Peter Doig), but Théberge had intuited a shift in his point of view.

“I had seen his collection, and I knew his judgment was excellent,” Théberge says. “I also knew he had been across the country, and had spoken to curators. He knew there was a need.”

On the board, Donald had become a subtle ally for Théberge, quietly deferring votes to marshal support for Théberge’s more controversial contemporary acquisition proposals. “I became educated, in a sense, by my experience at the gallery,” Donald says. “I found that there was some contemporary art that I really liked,” he laughs, “and some I didn’t.”

Donald, Théberge could see, was enjoying himself. “He approached it with this fantastic creativity,” says Théberge. “In the end, you could see that backing this prize would satisfy something in him.”

By now, Rob had learned not to be surprised. “You never know what’s going to come out of Dad’s head,” he says. “He knew the context of what he was getting himself into, and he wanted to run up the sideline and create something entirely new.”


It’s hard to imagine now, in this landscape cluttered with big-money contemporary-art prizes, but in 2001, across Canada, the prize landscape for visual artists was barren. Even the Governor General’s Awards, which now bestow $25,000 and a medal to as many as eight recipients, most of them in career twilights, were a modest $15,000.

Théberge knew that to make noise, the prize had to be big, and it had to be young. “I told him, ‘Sobey, you’ve got to give a lot of money—if it’s a small prize, it’ll kill us,’” he says. Leery of hosting the prize at the National Gallery (“we were the federal government; we couldn’t go around every year seeming to give away $50,000”), Théberge referred Donald back to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

In November 2001, five months into his job as the AGNS’s curator of contemporary art, Cronin was summoned to the office of director Bernard Riordon. In the room, he found Donald, Donald’s niece Heather Sobey Connors, and Théberge. “Bernie introduced everyone, and said, ‘we have a proposal we’d like you to consider,’” Cronin recalls. “Then Pierre took over the meeting. He said, ‘Mr. Sobey would like to fund an art award, he’d like it to be for artists under 40, and he would like it to be national in scope. Do you think you could do something like that?’”

Cronin was floored. “I said, ‘Who’s going to pick?’ Donald said he wanted it to be curatorially driven: ‘I don’t want to know anything about it—I ask experts for that kind of thing.’”

Cronin came up with the model the prize uses today—five regions, five curators each bringing five artists from their regions—and brought it back to Donald. On the jury, he had included two spots for foundation trustees. “Donald just looked at me like I had three heads,” Cronin recalls. “He said, ‘under no circumstances will anyone from the foundation be involved in choosing in any way.’ It was a great way to start: ‘we want to do this, we don’t want to have any opinion on the matter—we just want to pay for it.’”

It also left Cronin to deal with some of the fallout. “I got a lot of pushback early on about the regional model: people said it was provincial, that it was parochial. But working in Atlantic Canada, we knew that the art of Atlantic Canada gets very little national attention. So the notion of spending all that time and effort on something that would only benefit elsewhere seemed like a waste of time.”

Ten years on, the award has grown in notoriety, budget, frequency (it became an annual award in 2004; its first iteration was in 2002) and team: Cronin moved upstairs, becoming the AGNS’s director, and chief curator Sarah Fillmore stepped in to steward the prize’s jury process and annual exhibition. Bernard Doucet, the gallery’s director of advancement, infused the award with its hallmark sense of occasion, and made it a splashy public affair.

Whatever else has changed, Cronin remains convinced that the regional model works. “For me, it’s not about winning—it’s about creating dialogue and discussion,” he says. On that measure, the prize is a hit. In a tight funding climate where travel between regions is prohibitive for all but the biggest institutions, the Sobey fills a void. Each year, its five curators bounce from their regions out to Halifax, and then to the host city—most recently, Toronto.

“I have a list of 10 or 15 artists that I would otherwise never know,” says Ryan Doherty, the curator of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, who has served twice as a juror for the Prairies and the North region. “The impact is huge—and it works.” That’s easy enough to see in Doherty’s own gallery: Eleanor King, this year’s finalist from the Atlantic, went straight from the awards to a show of her work at the SAAG—a direct result of the cross-fertilized jury. King also signed on with Diaz Contemporary, a top dealer in Toronto, where she’ll be showing this year.

Not everyone shares in the optimism. Vancouver dealer Catriona Jeffries, who represents many successful young artists—including Brian Jungen, who won the first Sobey in 2002, and Gareth Moore, who was a finalist in 2012—is among those who worry that the model imposes artificial limits.

“The gesture of the prize is tremendous, and we’re all truly grateful for it,” she says. “But we can make it more complicated than regionalism, and it could be just as dynamic. We need to be constantly conscious of the critical high bar of artists practicing in this country. That can’t be subverted to a regional priority.”

Every year, Ontario and Quebec have dozens of submissions from artists nominated to be included on the provinces’ respective longlists. “The first year I did it, I had two,” says Doherty. Worried that the call for nominations hadn’t been made clear to artists in the Prairies and the North, Doherty made a point to spread the word in his region in 2012. “And I got five,” he says. “I’m not sure why, but it’s a challenge.”

It makes a curator do his homework. “I dig deep,” he says. “I look really closely: is there someone working in Yellowknife, say, that deserves consideration? It’s really important that someone is forced to ask that question.”

These are questions Cronin means to keep asking. “There’s an old cliché, about a rising tide that lifts all boats,” he says. “So the trick isn’t to free up one boat to be better than the others—it’s to lift the tide for everyone. And that’s a big, crazy, ambitious project, but, at its core, that’s what we want: to make things better for everyone.”


Just before the awards last fall, Rob was in Toronto, making sure all was in order. He’s hands-on, the prize’s lead troubleshooter and, as it happens, its chief worrier.

“I always err on the side of paranoia,” he laughs. “All the others say, ‘Rob, chill out.’ But I worry: that the prize will lose its relevance, that we’ll get called to task on process, or redundancy—whatever the hell it might be—and we don’t have a good retort. Not for one second do we think we have it all figured out, at all.”

Rob worries—about regionalism, about whether he can coax his father to the awards this year, even about semantics. (“From the beginning I wanted to call it a ‘prize,’” he says. “‘Award’ seems like someone comes down from on high. We don’t want to be that formal.”) More than anything, though, he worries about the future. “The truth is, he, and we, had no understanding this would get this big in 10 years. He just thought it was a good thing to do.

“But where is it going to be in five years? In 10? Do we need more resources? It’s worked well so far, but now we need to formalize things. We need to treat it like an endeavour for the long term.”

Dad, he must know, is smiling.


View images from past Sobey Art Award exhibitions at

This is a feature article from the Spring 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.