Diane Blake is the Founder and Board Chair of Myseum: a Toronto museum offering engaging programs and experiences which showcase the city’s history, spaces, culture(s), architecture, and people. She’s also a longtime supporter of SKETCH! We interviewed Diane to gain some more insight into her philanthropic background, and why she’s proud to be a SKETCH donor.
Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony: How did you hear about SKETCH?
Diane Blake: I heard about SKETCH through my friend and neighbour and fellow Myseum board member, Ian Bandine, who was hosting a fundraising event at his home.
POA: And what was your first impression of it?
DB: Well, it seemed like a really cool idea. I never really came across that sort of organization in my philanthropy but I was a beginning philanthropist at that stage, a newbie, so I hadn’t really explored that sort of area yet.
POA: What attracted you the most about us?
DB: Everything just seemed so bright, colourful and interesting. Especially in terms of the variety of arts offered and the acceptance of homeless youth.
POA: Why did you first give to our organization?
DB: Well mainly because I went to that event. I always felt there comes a time you have to start making some sort of contribution. Myseum’s principles are our charitable interests, education, arts and culture, and history. So SKETCH didn’t cover the history, but it certainly covered the other three.
POA: In your opinion, what is the most important work that SKETCH does, based on what you know?
DB: It helps young people realize their confidence to move into work and more fulfilling lives. Does that make sense?
POA: If you want, as much or as little, just tell me a little bit about your life and your own upbringing.
DB: Well, I was born in London, I was raised in Hertfordshire. I have a younger sister, my dad was a salesman, my mother a homemaker. My dad worked really long hours, so didn’t see much of him. It was very sort of 60s suburban in every respect. My mother I think was depressed most of my upbringing because she missed living in London so much, but I only really figured that out when I was an adult. She didn’t really make friends easily, her mother had just passed away. Not that it’s that my mom, it’s just what I always think about when I look at growing up.
I was fortunate to be the first person in my family to go to university. I went to university in London and it opened a whole new world for me, and allowed me to pursue a variety of interests. I went into computer studies in the beginning and became a systems analyst. What did I use to do? Well I played field hockey, met my friends, went drinking in the pubs, you know, that sort of thing. Went on holidays to Europe, to Spain. Did fairly sort of normal stuff.
POA: Were you interested in any causes from an early age?
DB: No not really, I have to admit that, although my dad’s a good example. He was always involved in causes, whether it was the PTA, the Samaritans, the Alzheimer’s society. He was always busy volunteering for something or other in his spare time. So I had that in the back of my mind, but you know, I never really sought it out. I would volunteer if people asked me, but I would never sort of initiate anything.
POA: And then you came to Canada?
DB: Exactly, so I was nearly 29 when I came to Canada. Before I came to Canada I went to six weddings, and I never had a boyfriend, so I thought working abroad was maybe a better thing to do than wait around for mister right. And so the Ontario government was advertising for computer professionals in the British Press and I came over. My job was in Oshawa. And of course, you know I met a woman a few weeks before I left who said, “Oh well she is Canadian, you know, you should tell them that you’re going to live in Canada.” She asked me where I was going and I said, “I’m going to Oshawa”, and her face…
POA: Was that not supposed to be…?
DB: No, for sure, she asks “why would you go to Oshawa? All they do there is build cars. Why don’t you go to Vancouver?” And I said, well, that’s where my job is, in Oshawa.
POA: And when did you arrive in Toronto?
DB: As soon as I was living in Oshawa I realized that I really needed to move to Toronto. So I moved jobs and got one in Toronto. At this time I was teaching people to use computers because personal computers had just started appearing on people’s desks. They needed to know how to use Draws, Word, Lotus, and all that jazz. Later came the Windows Suite of programs, so then I moved into Toronto once I got the job. So I found a house that needed lots of work, and that’s how I used to spend my time- doing up my house. And I’d met Steve a year after I came to Canada and we dated for about 18 months. Then we split up and then when I moved to the city, we got back together.
POA: From there, how did you get into philanthropy?
DB: Well you know I had three children in two years, so I was pretty busy there for a while. I still worked part time because I really didn’t know anything other than being at work. When I was offered a severance package, I decided I wanted to go to library school because that’s what I’d always wanted to do when I was younger. When I became a librarian, I was a bit disappointed really because after working in the technology field, you go into a library and it’s a different group of people. You know, without being sexist about it. The thing is, libraries were morphing into something different during that period because mostly now, except for business or specialized libraries, they’re more like community centres- which is good, I’m not saying it’s bad. It just meant that the skills I’d learned at library school were practically obsolete as soon as you got out. There was a lot of emphasis on trying to convince management and other people that libraries really did a good job, you know, and that they were useful. You don’t really want to be in a field that thinks it’s dying, yeah. So then I stayed at home with the kids for a while, and I volunteered at their school, you know for the sports teams, etc. I volunteered at the foodbank and at the church, but there was nothing there that really inspired me particularly.
And then I worked again as a part time archivist at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, and that was a job I loved even though I worked in the parking garage. And the good thing about it was I realized if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have done it all my life. But that was fine, life takes you where it takes you. So in the meantime, my husband started to build up a business, and it just went from strength to strength to strength. When I met him, he just declared bankruptcy the year before. He’d been in the property development business and I was earning more money than he was, so I lent him money and used my benefits package at work for a few years and all the rest of it. Anyways, the business grew miraculously. And he’d be the first to say there was a lot of luck in terms of timing and the rest of it. But there we were, it happened.
So when I finally left the yacht club, I thought “oh well what’s my next stage?”, and that’s when I really started thinking about philanthropy seriously. So I was a really late adopter. I’m trying to make sure that my children, because they already have that money unlike myself growing up, are interested in things all the time. Not very successfully I have to say, however keep putting the seeds in their mind and then eventually it will take hold.
So yeah, one of the things was that my husband is from Ottawa, and I’m from the UK. But obviously Toronto has been a fantastic place for the both of us, so we wanted to give back to the city. Traditionally, most people give back to the hospitals or the university or whatever, but we just wanted to try something different- although my husband has given significantly to university. We were out to dinner with some friends and Harold, our friend, was an amateur historian and he said “there’s nowhere for me to publish articles on the period of history that I’m interested in,” and that’s the 1930s. His dad was a trade union organizer on Spadina during the 1930s, when there was obviously a lot of labour problems well all over the world, right, with the depression and that sort of thing. And then he said “and they’ve never managed to get a museum for Toronto.” So Steve and I, Steve’s very interested in history as well and is the Chairman of Historica Canada, said “let’s give it a try.” So, Harold and I went off and did some background research. At that time Josh Matlow wanted to put the museum in Casa Loma, so we explored that. But one of Harold’s neighbours said “well why don’t you just start the museum, and it will be a museum with no walls until you build up a bit of momentum?” So that was the plan.
Now we’ve been at it for over five years. Harold has unfortunately passed away, but we’ve known from about year two that we do need a hub space. And that’s what we’re doing, working on a temporary hub space, permanent hub space, expanding the programming, brand awareness, the whole thing. Most people have heard of Myseum, but they don’t really know quite what it does. And Steve and I are still mostly supporting it, which is good. But because we’re both in our 60s, before we give it up we want to see that it’s sustainable. So we need to get some government funding, we need to get some external donors believing in what we do. So that’s my big challenge.
Like SKETCH, it’s never-ending, that’s the thing isn’t it? I suppose I knew that intellectually, but I didn’t realize what an emotional toll that could take if you just wander in the light for years and years. I had a meeting with someone at the National Ballet a couple of weeks ago, and he likens the feeling to climbing Everest. So you get up to the top of Everest, you have 40 seconds to look at the view, and then you have to start at the bottom again.
POA: Do you see any opportunities where SKETCH could improve?
DB: Well, sustainability for sure. I know they’re doing a great job of mentoring different groups across the province. I don’t know if it’s across the country, but I think that’s a great business to be in. It’s a great thing to become the thought leader, the administrator, that sort of thing. I think that adds to the sustainability and of course would help as many people as possible. I don’t know what the plans are to do there, in terms of physically. I know the more money you raise the more you can do, but you’re constricted by the space and logistically, etc.
POA: Why would you say somebody should make a donation to SKETCH?
DB: In my opinion, I think they should donate to SKETCH because it’s a creative and innovative way to help youth that are struggling. SKETCH doesn’t just feed them, you know like a soup kitchen would. It feeds their soul, and I think that’s the important thing. Everyone needs fulfillment in life, to feel useful, like people care about you. And I suppose that’s the other element of donating to SKETCH, you know that the people there really care.
POA: Are there any other causes that you support outside of Myseum and SKETCH?
DB: Yes, I support Soulpepper Theatre, I support TV Ontario. TV Ontario, in fact, I’m Chair of the gala this year. What else, the Walrus, I’m on the Board of the Walrus Foundation. And lots of other little things. If anyone asks “can you support me on this?”, I say sure.
POA: What motivates you to stay involved?
DB: What motivates me? Well I just feel that we have so much and I fear for the inequalities in our society. I fear that it’s not a good trajectory. The governments don’t seem to be doing anything about it so you know, you try and spread out some of the goodies through philanthropy. But it’s not satisfactory, as everyone’s philanthropy is political. So, if a democratically elected government is distributing funds to people who are less able to provide for themselves through income or taxes, then I feel maybe that’s because I grew up in Britain- that I feel that this is a more fair and equal way. However many bureaucratic overheads there are. And I’ve said that a lot of people don’t think the governments can manage things properly, you know it’s up to the people in charge to sort them out a little bit. But instead they just want to blame the unions right, which I find a little bit naive quite frankly. Anyway, that’s the story.
POA: What do you tell other people about SKETCH?
DB: Well I tell them about it, and most people seem to have heard of it already. It’s a little bit like Myseum. A lot of people say “oh I’m doing some work with SKETCH”, or “oh, yeah we know about SKETCH.” It surprises me sometimes because I tend to think of it being sort of small and fairly obscure, but it seems to have done a pretty good job on brand awareness. But, you know, I tell them what they do, regarding the homeless and marginalized.
POA: What are you most passionate about?
DB: Oh gosh. Well you know I’m not really much of a passionate person. I don’t know! I have to say Myseum. Why don’t I say Myseum? And my daughter’s cats and my son’s dog. I’m still waiting for the grandchildren.
POA: Do you have any favourite artists that inspire you in particular?
DB: Visual artists? I’m not particularly creative in any way. What inspires me? How about Julia Child?
POA: Culinary Arts?
DB: Yes, culinary arts, always struggling. But they’ll get there eventually.
POA: Do you have a favourite arts discipline at SKETCH?
DB: I’ve seen some work that I’ve thought was pretty cool, especially the pottery and ceramics SKETCH does. You know who’s work I really love, but I’ve never seen so I can’t actually say “I’ll buy that piece”, is Shary Boyle. She’s a Toronto artist, she was at the Biennial a few years ago and she does ceramics. Her work is great because they’re beautifully formed but like something out of the 1700s. Then there’s something sort of weird added on to it ,that makes it obviously 1700s. Like you know, witches head and stuff like that. You should check her out online!