Bruce Bailey’s Fête Champêtre: A Benefit for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
"More than being about fundraising, it’s about national unity. It’s about bringing the country together for a shared love of culture." - Bruce Bailey
Ensconced in the idyllic countryside outside of Toronto, Ontario is the country-home of philanthropist, art collector, salonnier, and story-teller Bruce Bailey, whose latest Fête Champêtre benefit event to support the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts took place on June 4th, 2022. On a beautiful summer day, an all ages cross-section of artists, bankers, farmers, socialites, musicians, athletes, and circus performers descended upon the pastoral setting of Bailey’s farm and lavishly decorated hayloft to gather, drink, dine, and converse. Bailey’s Fête Champêtre, literally translated as “party in the fields”, is not only an opportunity to indulge in great company and great food, but also, as he discusses in our conversation, an event to encourage English speaking Canada to support and engage with our French speaking compatriots.
Congratulations on your successful Fête Champêtre. I read an article that said you raised $1 million and donated artwork worth $4.1 million.
⎯⎯⎯ A bit of a correction there. We had raised $1 million, net. We actually raised $350,000 but the food and wine cost $350,000 for six-hundred-fifty guests. I don’t like going to a party where people have to wait in line for drinks, so instead of the recommended twelve waiters, we had something like fifty. Then I asked a group of about twenty artists to donate a work of art. I asked Peter Doig, who I started collecting in 1992 if he would donate a piece, thinking he might donate a drawing, and instead he donated a $4.1 million painting. It was a very rare 1992 painting of a landscape in Quebec when he was living in the Eastern Townships called “Study for Iron Hill”, which has entered the permanent collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It was lovely that he did that because of our personal connection since 1992, but also because he built a house nearby, and his mother lives fifteen minutes from me in a beautiful house right on Lake Ontario. The total raised was $5.1 million, which established a new record for any fundraising event in Canadian history.
Is this the most money you raised during one of your Fête Champêtres?
⎯⎯⎯ To step back a little bit, in 2000 I wanted to share aspects of my collection with people and I had a little storefront building at 594 Spadina Ave. in Toronto, which the photographer Chris Wool has his photography studio in now. I had my investment banking office there, and in 2000 I showed Goya’s eighty-three “Disasters of War” in a very fine first edition, and also the eighty-three “Disasters of War” created by the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. The director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Guy Cogeval, and the curator, Stéphane Aquin, flew into Toronto from Montreal to see it. They read about it in the paper, and they came, and they loved the show, so they took it to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2001 and installed it in two beautiful galleries in single lines; eighty-three in one and eighty-three in another. They painted the walls lavender, did a catalogue, and had a big party. Interestingly enough one of the guests at the party was a young musician playing in Montreal and he invited me to join him for a smoke outside. His name was Calvin Broadus and I said, “Forgive my ignorance, but I haven’t heard of you,” and he said “Well, my music name is Snoop Dogg.” [laughs]
⎯⎯⎯ And he, of all the guests in the party, was the most interested in the art and asked the most incisive questions. Very interesting man. So, that was my first connection with Montreal, and in 2006 they asked me to join their Art Acquisition Committee, but I was already on the Chairman’s Council at the Whitney Museum helping Leonard Lauder with contemporary art. So, I finished that up and felt that it was time to do something for Canada, so I joined the Acquisition Committee in 2010 until I resigned during the pandemic, in 2020. I had this idea to raise money, so I hosted the first Fête Champêtre in 2018 and we raised $440,000 net, and the second one was to take place in 2020, but the pandemic hit, and it was postponed until 2021. Then we were in lockdown again, so we had it in 2022.
For someone like me who wasn’t able to attend, what did I miss, or what can someone expect if they attend the next one?
⎯⎯⎯ You know, more than being about fundraising, it’s about national unity. It’s about bringing the country together for a shared love of culture. I had people attend from every province and territory. We had the soprano star of the Frankfurt Opera, Amber Braid – she’s a personal friend – and she invited Matthew Cairns, a 27 year-old from Toronto who two weeks earlier had won the New World Opera Star competition at the Metropolitan Opera – and he’s now in the company. We had conductor Johannes Debus and the entire Canadian Opera Company orchestra. We had representatives from the Ontario Indigenous peoples. We had circus performers from the National Circus School in Montreal. I invited a lot of prominent and interesting Quebecers, for instance, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is a medical doctor and an NFL football star and his wife Florence-Agathe Dubé-Moreau. We had people from everywhere. But the real reason I did this is that we need to end the two solitudes. I mean, Quebec has its own media in French, and we never hear much about what goes on in Quebec, and they don’t hear anything about English Canada. It’s a nation building exercise, to build stronger communication, and a stronger country, and I’m very grateful to the Toronto financial community. I’m sure a lot of people said, “Oh god, not another fundraiser for something out of province,” but people in Toronto support the Vancouver Art Gallery, we’re expected to support the Banff Art Centre in Alberta, and all of the money for the Fogo Island Arts Residency comes from Toronto, so I’m sure a lot of people rolled their eyes, but we have some nation building to do.
My other motivation was social promotion to create a stronger democracy. My idea of democracy is, and Abraham Lincoln said this, you can’t make a poor man rich by making a rich man poorer. I don’t believe in taxing the rich. I believe in elevating people who don’t have financial capital with people who do. So half of my guests were artists, musicians, circus performers – living at or below the poverty line – and they were sponsored for free by the rich people. So, you would have a billionaire beside a farmer, and on the other side an artist, and a circus performer. As a result of these seatings we had an artist get a studio in a carriage house in Forest Hill, and another artist got a solo show at the McMichael Collection, Margaux Williamson, and that led to her having an exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong.
I’m very curious about your approach to philanthropy. Just riffing off the word seating, it makes me think of seeding, and I wonder if this aspect of early development is part of your philosophy?
⎯⎯⎯ Yes, it’s very much seed stage investing. Where all this comes from is…my parents were children of the depression. My mother was a single child raised on a remote farm. My grandfather was a stonemason. He came out of Scotland in the 1920s looking for a better life. My father’s family had a seed mill in Maple, Ontario. His father died in 1929 of pneumonia as a volunteer firefighter in Maple, and my grandmother raised three children through the depression. She had to take in lodgers, so my father had to sleep in a bunk bed with a strange man who was a field labourer, and my aunt had a nurse in her room. They didn’t come from money. My father did eventually become successful. He was the country solicitor. He was very community oriented. He ran for the town council, and he ended up making money because he was the executor for all these farmers. Their land became valuable and an executor gets 1% of the estate. My father had five-hundred or six-hundred estates, and at the end of his life he had eleven paralegals, you know, doing all these land transactions. But I grew up poor. I’ll never forget this. I remember my mother cutting an orange into five sections, and each of the kids got one section. We were never given a whole orange. I started working when I was nine. I had a newspaper route, then I had a job at the IGA, starting at the age of twelve, after school. You know, there were no child labour laws.
It was a different time.
⎯⎯⎯ Then I became a lawyer and was mentored by three other lawyers and businessmen. I was a sort of self-made man who had no inherited wealth, and whose family came from poor circumstances. When I got into investment banking, I founded my own firm which was doing venture capital related investing, so I was involved in seed stage investments. And, because of financial circumstances, I always bought artists before they became famous. When I first bought Peter Doig, they were selling for $5,000 or $10,000 a painting. I was the first collector of artists like Steven Shearer, Karen Kilimnik, Kerry James Marshall, Kent Monkman, and John Massey. Then I started selling my share, and that allowed those artists to buy their own studios. The other half of the expenses went into book publications and paying my assistant, a PHD student who ran the gallery, so I’ve been very active in seed stage investing as a businessman and a collector. I have this idea, that as I grow older, I like to have friends of all ages, and so I started mentoring younger people.
Does your interest in mentorship stem from your own life experiences?
⎯⎯⎯ It very much does. My parents actually had a bad marriage. My mother was in love with a guy who was killed in World War II. When the men came home from war, there were four women for every available man. She married my father, but she had been in love with this other guy who never came home from the war. Then, you know, my father had a troubled childhood because his own father died when he was six, and he was the eldest child. He started working also, strangely, at the age of nine at a nursery. He had kind of lost his childhood, and when he started to gain success he wanted to enjoy life and he became a bit of a playboy. He started running around with other women and kind of abandoned us. My mother became an alcoholic, unfortunately. As the youngest child, I was taking care of an alcoholic mother while my brother and sister were in high school. Then, when I was in high school, they were in university, so I was kind of left behind. My mother committed suicide when I was seventeen when she was in my care. So, I had to deal with that.
Very sorry to hear that.
⎯⎯⎯ You know, I just watched the Maria Callas documentary that was totally brilliant – you should watch it – and she was talking about adversity and she said: “Adversity is a very good thing, because it shapes who you are. It makes you value the things in life more, and makes you a more empathetic person if you’ve suffered.” So, I don’t regret anything, but the complex situation is that I felt guilt that I wasn’t able to prevent my mother’s suicide, and I also felt guilt that I had gotten rid of this albatross that had really weighed me down from the age of three to seventeen. You know, I had no friends, I could never have people over, so I never had a party. A birthday party. A Christmas party. Anything. So, that’s why I want to throw a party, because in childhood I never had that.
You’re honouring that child part of you that missed out.
⎯⎯⎯ Yes! It’s totally connected, and it’s very childlike here! I have all these circus performers, and I had some people say that it was like being in a dream. It was very childlike. I had people on stilts, jugglers, a sheep herding demonstration – who is a high school friend of 40 years. She brought her flock, and one of the sheep was a black sheep named Bruce.
[Laughs] That’s perfect.
⎯⎯⎯ It was perfect! And the inspiration for the party is the Salon des Refusés, about outsiders, so it was about the artists, the outsiders, and their critical role in moving society forward. Steve Jobs has a quote about that: “Here’s to the people that are the round pegs that don’t fit into square holes, because people who are crazy enough to change the world usually do.”
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