The Creative, Strategic Philanthropy of the Azrieli Foundation

During his lengthy career, David Azrieli (1922-2014) was responsible for some of the largest real estate projects in Canada and Israel. But Azrieli was more than an extraordinary businessperson; he was extraordinarily civic-minded as well. 

“I believe that successful people should give back to the community,” he said in a 2004 interview. “To give it with your heart, and to give it in such a way that one believes it is going to make a difference.” 

He started the Azrieli Foundation in 1989, and it’s clear that the organization, which focuses on education, research, health care, and the arts, is making an enormous difference. The foundation focuses on initiatives in Canada and Israel; with approximately $100 million in giving per year, it is the largest non-corporate foundation in Canada—only the MasterCard Foundation is bigger. 

The Azrieli Foundation’s influence has been felt here at CANVAS as well, with a new fund of $100,000 CAD held at the foundation, supporting us to expand our North American arts ecosystem grantmaking in Canada. 

Today David Azrieli’s daughters continue the foundation’s work. Its portfolio of giving is vast, and it includes incredible support for Jewish arts and culture. Here are a few examples: 

  • The Ashkenaz Festival, a fantastic celebration of Jewish arts and culture in Toronto (begins August 30th; view the schedule here; see photo above by David Kaufman.) 

When taken together, the above demonstrates support for Jewish arts and culture coast to coast. It’s impressive. But the prestigious Azrieli Music Prizes are truly unique. Envisioned and guided by Dr. Sharon Azrieli, the noted soprano and arts innovator, the prizes celebrate excellence in composition for both Jewish and Canadian music: 

Each winner gets a hefty prize of $50,000 CAD, a performance at the biennial gala, a commercial recording of their prize-winning work, and two additional performances. The foundation values each prize package at $200,000 CAD. 

In order to better understand these substantial awards and how the organization supports arts and culture, we spoke to Jason van Eyk, the Azrieli Foundation’s Manager of Music, Arts and Culture. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

First, tell us about yourself. 

I was a freelance classical musician; my instrument was the viola. But I realized pretty quickly that I preferred non-profit arts management. I got an MBA from York University and I worked in arts marketing for theatres. In 2000, I was hired to be the Ontario Regional Director of the Canadian Music Centre (CMC). Our job was to improve visibility and career opportunities for some 800 composers. In 2011, I moved into arts education for five years. By 2016 I was freelancing again until a recruiter approached me about the Azrieli Foundation. 

Just to show you the power of relationships in the non-profit world: The head recruiter was the son of a composer I worked with at the CMC. 

I’m one of four program officers. My purview is the Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) initiatives. We are committed to “supporting organizations that discover, elevate and amplify artistic voices, granting broad access to meaningful arts experiences that exhibit artistic excellence and advance a shared pursuit of quality of life and learning.” 

What that means, in part, is helping close the chasms in the life of a musician. We are most interested in those things you don’t get in a conservatory training—the real-world entrepreneurial skills you need to thrive. So, one-third of our granting stream goes to organizations like the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and Jeunesses Musicales Canada. 

The next third focuses on arts education for underserved children and youth — anyone who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise. This is also a really gratifying funding target because we’re helping kids gain 21st century skills and competencies. As you know, the arts are great, period. But it also helps with learning engagement, school perseverance and graduation rates, which are really important to life-long success. 

The final third is artistic excellence in both the visual and performing arts, and there’s also smaller cultural exchanges between Israel and Canada. Additionally, there is a stream with arts and health that includes bringing the arts into senior residences and palliative care. 

What might American funders learn from how you do business? 

Everything we do starts from a conversation. We’re relational. I want you to tell me about your needs, what keeps you up at night, what you’re excited about. We have this period of exploring and information-gathering well before anybody is invited to submit a request. 

I feel that my job is to get things as close to a “yes” as possible with grantees. I can’t promise anything, obviously, but I want to form a relationship and be their advocate. 

We’re not the kind of organization where you throw something into the void, and you hope to get an answer six months later. I think of it as an opportunity to consult. I have 20+ years of experience to offer. I might say, “We like your idea but maybe it will work better this other way.” Even as we’ve grown, we’re doing our best to maintain that aspect of how we work. 

With the music prizes, what’s really interesting is how the foundation defines “Jewish music” and “Canadian music.” The definitions are broad, respectful, and inclusive. 

In terms of Jewish music, what we really mean is music of the Jewish experience. That came from Dr. Neil Levin, one of our jury members, who is one of the leading thinkers on Jewish-related music in North America, if not the world. He helped craft that. We’re actually asking composers to consider, “What is Jewish music?” And you don’t have to be Jewish to respond to that. 

With Canadian music, in light of Truth and Reconciliation, we were careful not to ask, “What is Canadian music?” We’re asking, “What does it mean to write concert music in Canada in all of its complexity?” We’re also looking to be responsible and respectful in terms of addressing issues around cultural misappropriation and colonialism. 

[Canada’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation educates Canadians on the harrowing experience of native peoples who were forced to attend residential schools.] 

The foundation also provides support for performing the prize-winning pieces with the Azrieli Music Prizes Performance Fund. That’s innovative, isn’t it? 

We always want to bet on the right horse, and if we produce a piece, it should be able to carry itself. Still, we record it [the foundation partners with the award-winning Analekta label]. We produce two international showcase concerts. We thought we could do even more to help give a piece legs. 

Three years ago, we piloted the Performance Fund with a half-dozen concerts, and since then pieces we commissioned have been performed across Canada, in Israel, in Portland, in Central Park’s Naumburg Orchestral series, and in the Hudson Valley. 

There are foundations that conduct granting, and there are foundations that support programs for the creation of new work. But I don’t know anybody else who does both. 

We’ve been lucky with our Prize Laureates. Just one example: Keiko Devaux won the inaugural Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music in 2019, and this year she won a JUNO [Canada’s prestigious music industry award] for her composition, Arras. It’s really exciting that our jury selected Keiko and we could support her rise. I’m confident we’ll get to do this many more times with many more composers. 

The 2022 Azrieli Music Prizes Gala Concert is October 20, 2022, 7:30 pm ET at Montréal’s Place des Arts. Tickets are available here. Or sign up to watch the gala’s free livestream here. 

 Originally published in Canvas. View the article here