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Former Empire president Donald Sobey passes away

In addition to his business accomplishments, Sobey is being remembered for his philanthropic efforts
Donald C. R. Sobey (CNW Group/Empire Company Limited)

Former Empire president Donald Sobey has passed away. He was 86.

Sobey, one of the four children of Sobeys founder Frank H. Sobey, started with the family business in 1958. He joined Empire’s board of directors in 1963 and served as president from 1969 until he was appointed chair in 1985.

Sobey was named chair emeritus in 2004 and actively engaged as a member of the board of directors until 2015.

Sobey is survived by his wife Beth, his three children and five grandchildren.

"Empire and Sobeys owe so much to the leadership, business acumen, and passion of Donald," said Empire president and CEO Michael Medline in a press release. "On behalf of all of our teammates across Canada, I want to extend our collective heartfelt
condolences to his wife Beth and their children and grandchildren."

"Donald was a great businessperson as well as a visionary philanthropist who believed in nurturing Canadian artists and supporting the next generation of leaders," added Medline. "We will all miss him."

In addition to his business accomplishments, Sobey is being remembered for his philanthropic efforts.

"Donald Sobey was a passionate global advocate for Nova Scotia, and of course, for his beloved Pictou County," said Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin.

Rankin added that through the Sobey Art Award, he promoted the careers of more than 300 emerging contemporary Canadian artists.

The award for Canadian contemporary art, given annually since 2002, was the brainchild of Sobey, a staunch supporter of the visual arts.

"His grassroots approach, and his vision to create the Sobey Art Award, impacted the lives of thousands of emerging artists across the country. He will be deeply missed," said Suda.

In recognition of Sobey's leadership, the National Gallery of Canada unveiled the Donald R. Sobey Family Gallery in 2015--the first exhibition space to be named in recognition of a donor in the institution's history.

The gallery described Sobey as one of Canada's greatest cultural philanthropists.

"His unflagging, generous and loyal support has not only touched so many artists' lives but also so many Canadians who were introduced to the best of the visual artists due to his philanthropy. This is an immense loss," stated Kitty Scott, chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada.

Sobey was chairman of the gallery's board of trustees from 2002 to 2008 and was a founding member of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation board of directors between 2007 and 2020.

The gallery said Sobey encouraged the museum to take risks and become a catalyst for national conversations on art.

His legacy also includes a student scholarship he created for educational opportunities, as well as many artists he supported throughout their careers.

The Donald R. Sobey Foundation last fall donated $10 million to Nova Scotia's new art gallery that is expected to open in 2025 on Halifax's waterfront at an estimated cost of $130 million.

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