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A Generosity of Spirit - The Rozsa Foundation celebrates 30 years of supporting the arts

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Guest Post by Tasha Komery, Communications Strategist, Arts Commons

If you work in the arts sector, whether as an artist or an arts administrator, you are likely familiar with the crucial role the Rozsa Foundation plays in the Calgary and Alberta arts community. It’s hallmark Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management has been granted to the likes of Bob McPhee formerly of Calgary Opera (2003), Shelley Youngblut of Wordfest (2018), and most recently Sara Leishmann of Calgary Folk Music Festival (2019). This year, in 2020, the Rozsa Foundation celebrates 30 years of awarding grants to artists and arts organizations, celebrating the achievements of Alberta’s arts leaders, and supporting arts managers in their professional development. We sat down with Simon Mallett, Executive Director, and Mary Rozsa de Coquet, Board Chair, to reflect on the past three decades. 



The Rozsa Foundation was founded in 1990 by Drs. Ted and Lola Rozsa with the intention of strengthening the arts sector in Calgary. “My parents clearly identified a need when they saw performing arts students practicing in the hallways at UofC,” shared Rozsa de Coquet. Her parents ultimately established the Rozsa Centre, a theatre and concert hall on the southwest side of the University of Calgary campus. “But the genesis of the Foundation and the Foundation’s work came from my parents’ strong belief that the arts are essential. It was more philosophical. Even though there were instances of needs identification 30 years ago, it was more the belief that we need a well-rounded community and society. It was really a generosity of spirit.”  

“The genesis of the Foundation and the Foundation’s work came from my parents’ strong belief that the arts are essential.” — Mary Rozsa de Coquet

Between 2000 and 2003, Ted and Lola decided to sell the family business, leaving the Foundation to operate independently. “It was a total reboot of the organization,” said Rozsa de Coquet. “We started to identify what kinds of charities and non-profits received support in Calgary. Because of the provincial cuts at the time, support went first to health and education. As you work down the pecking order, you finally get to the arts. We were starting to recognize that this was an area where a small amount of money could go a long way, and it aligned with the passion of my parents.” Around the same time that they were gaining the clarity on what the foundation should or could do was when Ted Rozsa received the Edmund C. Bovey Award, which recognizes business professionals who have demonstrated a lifetime of significant philanthropy in arts and culture. “We discussed what we could do with the $20,000 that came with that award. The establishment of the Rosza Award for Excellence in Arts Management really reflected both sides of the coin for mom and dad in the arts. While they both longed for and loved artistic excellence and accessibility, dad was particularly concerned about the viability of arts organizations and strong management approaches.” Mallett added, “Arts managers are the unsung heroes of the arts and how much they enable to happen. The Rozsa Award is like bringing the back stage on stage, so to speak, in terms of acknowledging those who do not typically get the recognition for their work.”  

Jennifer Johnson, Director of Programming at Arts Commons; Kate Monaghan (formerly of Glenbow Museum as Government Relations & Public Funding Senior Associate); and Leslie Biles, Director of Venue Operations at Arts Commons. Photo by Diane + Mike.

Rozsa de Coquet’s love of the arts is clearly in her DNA. “Sunday afternoon was classical music. You were never allowed to put on any other album. Dad had his pristine LPs and we listened to classical music. As a little girl, off we’d go to the CPO concert. I mean, being so young, I remember sitting there in the Jubilee counting the acoustic tiles, but I was there! It was all part of it. Meeting the musicians and having them come to the house. The choir at church was part of it. And my mom was involved in MAC14 (this was the name of Theatre Calgary until 1968). They were doing all the Tennessee Williams plays, and I remember running her lines with her. I think in part she was chosen because she had an authentic southern accent. I remember The Glass Menagerie and she couldn’t remember the lines. And I would say, “Mom, it says ‘The damn DAR,” and she would say, “Don’t you use that kind of language around me young lady!” Other things were going to summer camp. There they would say, “ok, you get up and lead the singing or you do the skit,” and of course at the time we were all terrible, but the whole ethos was that you were great! After a while, you learned how to stand up and talk in front of people and have fun. I’ve been accused many times of having silly games in board rooms, but really, it’s about having fun. There’s a little sense of performance.” 



Simon Mallett’s first experience with the Rozsa Foundation was as a funder, after founding and leading Downstage Theatre Society, an Arts Commons resident company. His association with the Rozsa Foundation grew when he was asked to work with the Foundation on their 25th anniversary celebration in 2015, which he ultimately produced and directed. In that process, he learned more about the Foundation’s history and gained a deep appreciation for both the family and the Foundation, for their commitment to the work and the cumulative impact of the work on the arts in Calgary and Alberta. “At that time, we were doing a lot of work at Downstage around removing barriers to access,” said Mallett. “We had introduced our pay it forward program, and looked at different ways to fundraise, different business models, different approaches. We were playing. We were being creative in the arts administration space. I think that resonated for Mary, given the foundation’s specific engagement at that intersection of arts and business. Following the 25th anniversary, Mary and I developed a standing lunch date to talk about what was happening in the arts community, specifically around innovation and trying new things. We found a meaningful connection and we developed a friendship.” 

Rozsa de Coquet spent 16 years leading the Rozsa Foundation’s day-to-day operations, and around the 25th anniversary, she began thinking about moving on from that role. While both will say that they didn’t see it right away, their friendship led to Mary stepping down from the day-to-day and Simon taking the reigns. “I got a call from the recruitment firm that the Foundation had hired, asking if I was willing to have a conversation about the Rozsa  Foundation,” recollects Mallett. “Part way through that conversation, they asked if this was something I would be interested in. I hadn’t really considered it, because Downstage was something that I founded, that I built from the ground up, and I obviously had very deep roots there. But the more I thought about it, I embraced the opportunity to bring about the possibility of that kind of impact, of championing the hopes and aspirations of other arts organizations on a larger scale. This opportunity intersected with my interests. And when else am I going to be afforded the opportunity to have a say in a foundation that supports the arts in Alberta the way the Rozsa Foundation does?” 

Simon Mallett awards the inaugural Rozsa Award for Excellence in Board Leadership to Tara Owen of the Alberta Craft Council. Photo by Diane + Mike

Simon left Downstage as Artistic Director, in April 2017, and passed the torch to Artistic Producer, Ellen Close, who had herself gone through one of the Rozsa Foundation’s Arts Management programs. While Mallett admits he had to do a lot of soul searching before accepting the offer, the Foundation also supported him in continuing his artistic practice. He couldn’t find a good reason to say no.   

“Downstage definitely gave me an artistic outlet. But I knew very early on that I wanted the organization to continue on after me. And at that point in time, we were in a strong financial position, and there was someone within the organization, in Ellen, who was ready to take over. And we had a really strong board. So, there was this moment in time and I thought, ‘If I want to get out of the way and see this organization continue to thrive, while also being able to build on this amazing legacy that the Foundation has, this is the time’.” 



Since 2017, the year Mallett joined the Foundation, they have added the Rozsa Award for Excellence in Board Leadership, and two bookend programs around the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) – the Rozsa Administrative Fundamentals Training (RAFT) program and the Rozsa Executive Arts Leadership (REAL) program. Sara Leishman was the first person to go through both the management and leadership programs and then receive the Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management. Leishman is now the Executive Director of Calgary Folk Music Festival Society.  

Sara Leishman accepts the 2019 Rosza Award from Simon Mallett. Photo by Diane + Mike

Although it may not have started out that way, the organization has become very nimble. Since the COVID-19 Pandemic changed our lives almost seven months ago, the Rozsa Foundation has developed a number of grants in direct response to supporting the needs of the artists and arts organizations affected by the pandemic.  “In the immediate aftermath, we recognized the need for additional support,” said Mallett. “We joined forces with the Calgary Foundation and Calgary Arts Development to offer programming cancellation grants. It was our way of providing unrestricted funds but doing it in a way that meets specific needs. We thought, ‘what if we offered to pay the cost of those contracts to those organizations, which then frees up funds so that organizations can deal with more urgent matters?’.”  

In March, Arts Commons made the decision to pay all Alberta-based artists and arts educators that were contracted to the end of the season, whether they ended up performing, teaching, and exhibiting – or not. This initiative was projected to cost over $50K and was only possible with the assistance of a $20,000 grant from the Rozsa Foundation, and the support of almost 200 ticket holders who donated their tickets for cancelled performances. 

“The other big piece was that we saw the online digital pivoting that was happening,” Mallett explains further. “Arts organizations have wanted to explore digital technology and how it integrates with their artistic practice more meaningfully for many years. But there is never the time or resources to do it. As the world turned to the arts online, to meet the need for interpersonal connection, social bridging, and to avoid social isolation, we said, ‘What if we can support arts organizations in meeting the needs of the people while also allowing them to plant the seeds for what may be a great opportunity in the future?’ And so, we contributed $400,000 of our own money, Calgary Foundation put in $200,000, and CADA chipped in $150,000. We then had three quarters of a million dollars to put towards programming cancellation and digital online programming grants.”  

The Rozsa Foundation has also developed a grant to directly support those in the BIPOC community. (Rozsa Foundation thoughtfully uses IBPOC as their acronym, positioning our Indigenous peoples at the front, or as Mallett puts it, “putting Canada’s First Peoples first”.)  “In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, and the tremendous amount of conversation that emerged around inequities and systemic racism within the arts community, a frequent part of the narrative was the lack of IBPOC people in leadership positions. Obviously, there were large systemic challenges, but the other part of it is what pathways are in place? How are we as a community actually stewarding people to position them to be competitive and ready to take on these positions?" shared Mallett.

   Mallett and his team did not do this in a vacuum. Consulting with others in the arena of arts leadership, including Jenna Rogers of Chromatic Theatre, they shared it with leaders in the IBPOC communities and asked for feedback, criticism, and an informal gap analysis. “The credit for this grant goes to the folks who provided that input, because there is a lot of subtleties and nuance that is necessary, and there is a lot of building supports and centralizing their experience. The last thing we want to do is further traumatize someone by putting them into an organization that is not ready to actually work with them.” September 18, 2020 marked the first deadline for the IBPOC grant application.  

The Foundation also developed a new Experimentation and Transformation granting program. “We often talk about the need to be innovative in the artistic practice, but there is also a great need to be innovative within the models within we work,” said Mallett. “Sometimes that is around creating new partnerships or new revenue streams. We call these ‘small experiments with radical intent’. Organizations in other sectors are investing massive amounts in research and development, and because there is always a scarcity of resources in the arts, that’s a real challenge. We want to help to create change capital for organizations. To encourage organizations to try the thing that has been in the back in their mind, but they never have time or money to do.”  

Rozsa Admin Fundamentals Training cohort February 2020 with facilitators Ayla Stephen and Geraldine Ysselstein. Photo by Dooshima Jev.

The Rozsa Foundation is an impact organization. They measure their success by the impact their education, training, and granting programs have on individuals, organizations, and the sector as a whole. The arts in Canada have historically relied on government funding and corporate sponsorship to survive and thrive. Today’s landscape, however, looks especially different. “I have serious questions around the short-term status of government funding. We are seeing governments announcing massive deficits and the arts have always had to fight for our position as a need to have, rather than a nice to have. There is going to be some financial reckoning, and I am trepidatious about what that means for arts funding at all levels.” When asked if individual philanthropy will become more important in Canada, Mallett said, “There certainly is a base of philanthropy in Canada. Nothing compared to what we see in the US, and a lot of it goes to social service related needs, like health care and education. Where I think we will see the opportunity for philanthropic giving to the arts, is where there is an intersection of arts for social change and arts for social good. Like arts programming for seniors, who are otherwise at high risk of being socially isolated. And what is the intersection between arts and poverty reduction, or between arts and child welfare. It’s going to force the arts to get more creative with how we intersect with civil society. And of course, this is the kind of art that I really get excited about. But the need for arts is not just entertainment – it is entertainment AND. The arts can be entertaining while still serving to creating critical social discourse. So, if the arts are going to hope for increased philanthropic support in that way, they are going to have to make the case for it. There is so much need. Everywhere. It won’t be enough for arts organizations to just say that government funding has dwindled, so we need individuals to step up. The question then becomes why the arts over something else. Those who survive and thrive will be those that find meaningful and critical ways to intersect with their communities, and allow the arts be part of the healing process and the forging of the next phase of the arts in society.” 

“Where I think we will see the opportunity for philanthropic giving to the arts, is where there is an intersection of arts for social change and arts for social good.” — Simon Mallett



We asked Rozsa de Coquet what aspects of the work that the Rozsa Foundation does that she is most proud of. “A couple of years ago, I would have responded with the ground-breaking research we did in arts and education, and that ability to have facts to back up the cross-sectoral work, and that still ranks up there,” she pauses and gives it a bit more thought. “But I guess I would have to say the continued development of our leadership program, and really being part of some national dialogue. I think that has been our most significant contribution. Locally, we may have played a small role in elevating the profile of the arts. I mean, it’s the artists that do that, but I think we’ve helped.” 

Erin Jenkins of Calgary Queer Arts Society receives her Rozsa Arts Management Program certificate from Mary at the U of C. Photo by Dooshima Jev.

It is clear in Rozsa de Coquet’s voice how much she loves the work she does. It’s not just about duty and passion. It’s also because she has fun doing it. “It’s a fun approach to say, ‘What’s missing in this beautiful mosaic?’,” shares Rozsa de Coquet, “and then being able to respond.” Along with now being the Chair of the Board and working closely with Mallett, she is also on the Board of Directors of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. “Unlike a foundation to eradicate cancer, that can be sobering and sometimes sad, working in the arts, there is such an upside, you just want more. I had a chance to interact with so many people – you can see the big quilt, as well as all the little stitches.”  

When asked if she misses working in the day-to-day of the Foundation, she shared, “I love the people, I loved helping them realize their dreams. That was such a blessing – not many people get to do that – I was so fortunate. They were all artists trying to create that which didn’t exist, and after a while that rubs off on you. It makes them fascinating people.” 

While supportive of the newer digital integration of the arts, Rozsa de Coquet clearly longs for the day when we can gather again and enjoy the arts as a community. “I miss the arts. I’ve been grateful there have been musicians out on front lawns, and some of the online arts events. But it’s a tough transition. There is a lot of entertainment on screens, but there isn’t a lot of empathy. And the arts are all about empathy. How you translate that onto a screen, it’s a huge challenge. Nothing replaces a family gathering except a family gathering. Or being able to worship communally. All those things we don’t have right now. No wonder the world is going to hell in a hand basket. If you take away all the things that build humanity and give joy, what do you think you have left?” 

This article was first published in Arts Commons' Spotlight October 2020 newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.


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