MONTREAL — Just how near the Saidye Bronfman Centre (SBC) came to closing, after decades of money and management woes, is revealed in the new book Spirited Commitment: The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Foundation fa commissioned history of one of Canada’s largest private charitable foundations published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Saidye Bronfman centre [File photo]
The SBC – now called the Segal Centre for Performing Arts – was a gift to the community in 1967 by the four children of Saidye Bronfman on her 70th birthday, in recognition of her patronage of the arts and long support of the YM-YWHA, of which the SBC was a branch.
Authors Roderick MacLeod and Eric John Abrahamson write that the Bronfman family never intended to contribute to the SBC’s budget, beyond some early assistance, or get involved in its direction, and, in fact, that was stipulated in their contract with the Y. But the family repeatedly came to its rescue.
The SBC, an architectural gem that gave the city a much-needed art and theatre mecca, proved to be “heartache” and “headache” to the Bronfman siblings, Minda de Gunzburg, Phyllis Lambert (who designed it) and Edgar and Charles, and later their children. Keeping it going came at a huge cost in money and time to the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Foundation, which wound down in 2004 after 52 years.
At the time, foundation board member Jean de Gunzburg, son of the late Minda, “predicted that if the Saidye did not acquire proper leadership soon, it would be ‘dead in the water.’” Lambert was particularly dismayed by the building’s physical deterioration.
The Bronfmans had had enough, and if it wasn’t for Alvin and Leanor Segal stepping up with a $20-million proposal, the SBC’s future, the book suggests, would have been in doubt.
The Bronfmans had long felt that the Jewish community “did not always seem to value” the SBC. At the same time, the perennial question of who “owned” the SBC complicated its mission.
“Because the centre bore Saidye’s name, the community seemed to expect the family to pay for its upkeep… [T]he Jewish community, and certainly the Y, did not develop a strong sense of responsibility for their possession,” the co-authors write.
“At no other point in the [foundation’s] history – indeed, arguably in the history of any public institution of this importance in Canada – did a project provoke such a sense of obligation, combined with resentment, frustration, and guilt on the founder’s part.”
Only a couple of years after the foundation had discharged its initial six-year commitment, the SBC appealed for more help. The foundation grew increasingly disenchanted with the Y and its “top-heavy bureaucratic structure.”
The Bronfmans, of course, were the biggest contributors to the Combined Jewish Appeal, giving more than $2 million annually in the 1970s, and CJA, in turn, gave funds to the Y.
The story of the SBC became one of lurching from crisis to crisis, with Bronfman bailouts and studies commissioned to try to set the SBC on a sustainable course.
Despite the SBC’s shaky situation, exacerbated by the loss of provincial and federal funding, an ambitious expansion and renovation was launched in the 1980s, largely with aid foundation, that ran over estimate and deadline.
Exasperated, foundation executive director John Hobday issued an ultimatum to Charles to “Either take Mother’s name off the door, or you fix it.” Other private philanthropy was negligible, probably due to the Bronfman name being attached to the institution.
In 1987, the family injected $6 million, $3.5 million of which went to set up a permanent endowment with the proviso “that the SBC’s annual financial requirements will be fully satisfied without further funding by the undersigned.”
In 1992, the foundation committed itself to five years of grants, which it renewed in 1997, with most of the money going to maintenance, not programming. Under executive director Cecil Rabinovitch, who had had a long career in the federal public service in the cultural sphere and whose husband was a foundation board member, the SBC was finally on firmer footing.
The endowment grew with Mrs. Bronfman’s death in 1995.
The Segals entered the picture around this time, with major support for Dora Wasserman’s Yiddish Theatre. In appreciation, the theatre was named after them in 1998.
By the late ’90s, the theatre, the SBC’s centrepiece, was flourishing. Then came 9/11 and the SBC’s box office suffered. The SBC hoped the foundation would renew its funding for yet another five years after 2002. The family, with most of its members living outside Montreal, however, was thinking of winding down the foundation.
Nevertheless, on May 23, 2003, the foundation board approved an annual grant of $150,000 for the next five years and drafted an agreement with the Y that it was the latter’s responsibility to maintain the building “in first-class condition.”
A few days after, Phyllis toured the building and was shocked by its condition, terming it “a slum” and “at risk” of further deterioration that would make it irreparable.
“A contract to maintain the building in first-class condition is a joke,” she said, and she advised the other board members not to sign with the Y.
Yet she wasn’t ready to give up on the centre. “The SBC is the only testimony to Saidye in Montreal. We must find a way of making the testimony endure honorably.”
The SBC had no executive director at the time, the board having decided not to fill the position after the resignation of the two previous ones, the second after only a few months.
Architect Vianney Bélanger reported that $400,000 was needed to bring the building up to code and cover long-term planning costs. The SBC was also running a $250,000 deficit.
“The [foundation] directors gave the situation much thought and decided: ‘No. Not one cent,’ is how Charles put it. The family continued to care deeply about the fate of the Saidye, but with no one at the helm and a long history of disappointment, they were no longer willing to come to its rescue,” the co-authors write.
The Segals agreed to pay off the SBC’s deficit and promised to cover any losses incurred by the theatre in the next two years.
A task force with representation from the SBC, federation, the Y and the foundation commissioned consultants Gail Lord and Associates. Hobday, retired as director of the Canada Council for the Arts, became interim executive director of the SBC in 2006.
The book makes clear there was no rivalry between the Bronfmans and Segals, and that they collaborated closely to save the institution.
The Segals were prepared to put $20 million or more into the SBC, but wanted the focus to be on theatre.
“[T]here was consensus that the centre’s focus had to be narrowed,” according to the book. The art school and the gallery, although still vital, were closed, which was opposed by many.
The SBC would become the multi-purpose Segal Centre for Performing Arts at the Saidye (although the latter phrase has since all but disappeared). Most significantly to the co-authors, it would no longer be under the control of the Y.
“Overall, the [Bronfman family members] were pleased that the centre they had kept alive for so long would have another chance at success. When asked if they would consider making a special donation or investment in the new centre, however, the extended family politely refused.”
MacLeod and Abrahamson let it be known that the Bronfmans have no regrets about their establishment of the centre. However, Stephen, the younger family member who took the most active interest in it, says the lesson he has taken is: “I don’t ever want to have my name on a building.”