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Donald Sobey, son of grocery store founder, remembered for leadership, philanthropy

STELLARTON, N.S. — Donald Sobey, former president and chairman of Empire Company Ltd. and the son of the Sobeys grocery store founder, has died. He was 86 years old.

STELLARTON, N.S. — Donald Sobey, former president and chairman of Empire Company Ltd. and the son of the Sobeys grocery store founder, has died.

He was 86 years old.

Michael Medline, president and CEO of Empire and its wholly owned subsidiary Sobeys Inc., says the companies are indebted to him for his leadership, business acumen and passion.

Medline says Sobey was a great businessperson as well as a visionary philanthropist who believed in nurturing Canadian artists and supporting the next generation of leaders. 

Sasha Suda, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, says Sobey deeply believed in artists and championing their work. 

After graduating from Queen's University in 1957, Sobey joined his father and brothers in the family business.

He started in real estate financing for the rapidly expanding Sobeys grocery store chain and then worked with parent company Empire, which was created to diversify the family's business interests. 

Sobey joined Empire's board of directors in 1963, before being appointed president in 1969 and chairman in 1985. 

In 2004, he retired as chairman and was named chairman emeritus, continuing to be actively engaged in the business as a member of the board of directors until 2015.

He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2014 for his business and philanthropic contributions to the country.

"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.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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