OTTAWA — Winnipeg philanthropist Gail Asper was serenaded with an adapted song from one of her favourite musicals Wednesday as the National Arts Centre celebrated a $5-million Asper donation to its new Creation Campaign.
Just a week after Asper and her husband, Michael Paterson, donated $2 million to the University of Manitoba Taché Arts Project, she was on the centre’s stage, where she was presented as the lead donor on the new campaign to fund new works of music, dance and theatre across the country.
Asper said she is driven to make such donations because of what she was taught by her father, the late Winnipeg businessman and philanthropist Israel Asper.
"We should give while we live," she said was his frequent advice. "We should give while we can see the benefits of our giving, the fruits of our giving."
The new Creation Campaign will be the first private capital fund to help give artists the time and money they need to develop new productions.
"This opens up a lot of opportunities. I think it will stimulate a lot of new work," said National Arts Centre CEO Peter Herndorf.
He said he expects the fund, which will begin providing money next year, will make 15 to 20 major investments every year. More details of how the fund will work will be unveiled later this fall.
Many at the event, including Asper, cited The Drowsy Chaperone as a rare example of a Canadian work that was able to generate the investments and attention needed to make its way from a performance by friends at a stag party in Toronto in 1997 to Broadway, where it would win five Tony Awards.
Asper said the first time she saw the show she was "in a foul mood" and it lifted her out of her funk, reminding her of the power of live theatre.
She was then surprised as actress Nora McClellan escorted her to a chair — a takeoff from the Man in Chair of the musical, and performed a version of the song As We Stumble Along. Lisa Lambert, the lyricist for the Drowsy Chaperone, helped rewrite the words.
"As we stumble along, we look to Gail Asper," she sang. "As we stumble along, no one is blue. ’Cause we’re certain to prevail with our effervescent Gail. She will lead us to our grail and pull us through."
Asper was touched but said she was quite nervous about being serenaded.
"I did not know they were doing this," she said. "Trust the National Arts Centre to be the most creative and fun place ever. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to be centre stage."
The National Arts Centre Foundation has been raising money for the campaign since 2014 and with the Asper donation has secured $23 million. Herndorf said the majority of the donations have come from Western Canada.