The Azrieli Foundation Supports Digital Infrastructure

June 24, 2021


Calley Skalnik during the filming of Apollo. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

A valued partner since 2017, the Azrieli Foundation has recently moved to support the capacity for digital programming at The National Ballet of Canada as part of its Arts Restart strategy, a special response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Jason van Eyk, Manager of Music Initiatives, to share the Foundation’s giving philosophy at this consequential time for arts and philanthropy.


Siphesihle November and Tina Pereira in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty Variations. Photo by Karolina Kuras. 

What is the Foundation’s connection to The National Ballet of Canada?

The foundation has been around for over 30 years and since the beginning it has been funding the arts. In 2017 we established the Music, Opera and Dance strategy, which provides support to the major organizations in our two home cities of Montreal and Toronto. The National Ballet of Canada is one of the organizations that has benefited from that strategy. We started with a two-year commitment and increased our giving in the two following years.  

The Azrieli Foundation promotional materials state that the Foundation is “passionate about the promise and importance of a rigorous and creative approach to philanthropy.” Can you explain what that means in practice and how it informs the organizations you choose to support?

That goes back to the roots of the family that is behind the Foundation. Naomi Azrieli is our Chair and CEO and she comes to philanthropy with an investment mindset. We aim to understand an organization’s leadership, its operations, its partnerships, its financial structure, its place within the arts ecosystem and the type of impact it is seeking to make. We’re thinking about what our investment might give back to the community on a social and cultural level.

Investment is not just in terms of dollars. We work across multiple fields and we’re always scanning the environment, which gives our program managers deep knowledge to share with their charity partners. Investment can come in the form of consultations, connecting grantees to resources or network development. We’re always looking for opportunities that are creative and innovative and will help organizations move the needle from where they are to where they want to go. We’re also willing to take measured risks with organizations if there’s a creative solution that’s going to positively push the envelope in a particular direction.


Brendan Saye, Calley Skalnik, Jeannine Haller and Svetlana Lunkina with Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla and Paolo Santos during the filming of Apollo.

Why did the Azrieli Foundation include the arts in the category of emergency needs in its COVID-19 response plan?

In some ways for very practical reasons. We knew that the arts sector was the first and most severely hit and that it would also be the slowest to recover. Given our commitment to music, arts and culture, we felt we had to be there.

We also recognize the importance of the arts in a time like this. When the pandemic began, it was the arts that provided solace, a place for reflection and moments of joy. People loved sharing videos from dancers, musicians and other artists. That became very important for people’s sense of wellbeing.

What inspires you about the artistic response to the COVID-19 crisis?

We have been gob-smacked by the ways in which organizations have completely reimagined themselves, experimenting with their programming, especially through digital initiatives. The pandemic accelerated ideas that were just notions before, quickly changing how we tell stories. We’re learning all the time from our grantees about how they’re responding, adapting and transforming. It’s inspiring for us, and we hope we can be helpful by serving as a clearinghouse for this information with other grantees. 


Brendan Saye, Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla and Paolo Santos during the filming of Apollo

What do you hope to accomplish by supporting digital capture and distribution initiatives at the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company?

Our core purpose in music and the arts is to support organizations that discover, elevate and amplify creative voices, granting broad access to meaningful arts experiences that exhibit excellence and enrich our quality of life and learning. We had conversations early on about the digital stage program with both organizations and we have been able to make moderate contributions towards the project through our Arts Restart strategy. We’re so pleased that the Department of Canadian Heritage has made a large commitment to the project, especially in the facilities that these organizations have available to them, which are such great resources in the arts community.

As a foundation, we take a backseat in terms of recognition. If we put our logo out there it’s because we want to signal to others that this is something we think is valuable and that we want others to come along with us. We’re often asking where we can partner with other funders to encourage a larger pool of philanthropy.

The Azrieli Foundation also proposes a strategy of support for rebuilding communities in the wake of COVID-19. What role do you see the arts playing in the rebuild phase?

In today’s digital world, audiences are global. We hope to have conversations about what it means to be a hybridized organization in terms of delivering live and digital presentations, simultaneously or in tandem, to a variety of audiences. We want to encourage organizations to integrate those successful innovations they have made during the pandemic into their operations, and to adopt practices that will allow them to be more sustainable and relevant to more people over the longer term.

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