BORN: Chicago, Illinois • 14 September 1898
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 26 April 1993
Close to his ninetieth birthday Floyd Chalmers took time to reflect on a life of arts patronage and concluded: “I don’t think I’ve ever made a bad invest¬ ment in the arts.” Every project and every plan he supported, Chalmers remembered, was a worthwhile effort.
He admitted to only one peculiar regret: he never learned to play the piano. “And after all these years of loving music, being so closely involved with it, could I tell you where middle C is?” he wondered aloud. “Maybe—but I doubt it.”
Here was a comment that summed up perfectly the irony of Chalmers’ life: this was a man who donated thousands of hours and millions of dollars to fields ofendeavour about which he had only super¬ ficial knowledge.
But to legions of Canadian artists, and to succeeding generations who would value their efforts, Chalmers’ admitted lack of expertise never mattered. When he died, his contribution to the arts spoke for itself.Unlike most philanthropists of renown, Chalmers did not enjoy a privileged upbringing.
Born in the United States, Chalmers’ working-class family migrated to Orillia and then, when Floyd was a boy, to Toronto. A stint in the Canadian Army during the 1914 war confirmed his Canadianness, and Chalmers returned from Europe eager to earn a living in Toronto.
He found a job at the Financial Post, a division of the Maclean Publishing Company, and worked initially as a reporter and ad salesman at the business news¬ paper. He showed an uncommon knack for securing the confidence of the most important Canadian business leaders and gained the Post a steady supply of inside information.
In 1925 the precocious journalist was named editor of the paper.Chalmers rose quickly through the ranks of what became the Maclean-Hunter publishing empire. In 1952 he started a twelve-year stint as company president; they were crucial years, as Maclean-Hunter expanded its operations and became the single most important media group in the country.
Chalmers became chairman of the board in 1964, and remained a company adviser well into his retirement.While building his career, Chalmers fell increasingly in love with the arts—or more precisely, with the idea of helping the arts.
He began modestly, volunteering with the Toronto Conservatory of Music and helping to found what would become the Canadian Opera Company. In 1951 he offered spirited encouragement to Tom Patterson’s plan for an annual Shakespearean festival in Stratford, and later became the drama company’s most important fundraiser.
But if these early activities were important, they paled in comparison with the money that Chalmers began to distribute personally in 1964.That year, Maclean-Hunter made a public share offering for the first time and Chalmers, who had gradually accumulated a 22 per cent interest in the company, decided to sell a big chunk of his stake. Shares were snapped up by investors, and Chalmers made a multi¬ million dollar profit overnight.
Only a fraction of the windfall was signed over to the Chalmers Foundation at first, but the retired businessmen soon discovered that he enjoyed doling out money whenever he found a deserving artistic project. For Canadian artists, it was too good to be true: Chalmers typically sought expert advice on potential projects, then left project design and implementation to the artists themselves.
He seldom inter¬ fered, and lacked all the pretensions that often must be indulged in patrons. Chalmers insisted only that his aid be directed to Canadians and that the highest standards be maintained.The results, measured in buildings and achievement, litter the Canadian artistic landscape.
Chalmers himself paid for the Centennial opera Louis Riel, the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, and dozens of endowed awards in theatre, music, and dance.Major contributions were made to Stratford, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Ballet, and the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.
He also ensured that his influence would outlive him: first through the Ontario Arts Council, and, more recently, through his daughter Joan, family money has continued to find its way into artists’ hands,
Chalmers, given the gift of long life, expressed approval for the culture he had wrought but never seemed interested in injecting himself into the projects he supported. He spent, observed, and approved, but forever remained the business¬ man who could not find middle C.