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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 4

Constance Pathy - Master Volunteer Receives 'Sweet' Award for Lifetime of Service to the Arts

by Danielle Dubois / November 29, 2004

When asked how it feels to have received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts from the hands of Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson herself, Constance Pathy cannot hide her emotion: "It's very, very sweet to receive recognition." Indeed, such tributes are rare in the volunteerism business, where dollars, and not honours, are the most sought-after targets. Yet, despite being well-known and respected for her leadership abilities, Pathy has managed to keep a relatively low profile. For her, it is has never been about seeking honours, but rather about exploring another side of life – a side she feels is too often ignored.

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Pathy studied international law before coming to Canada in 1960. Before long she had become a handmaiden to arts organizations across the country. "I drifted into it. Organizations had previously been subsidized to a better level, but money became short, and help was needed." Pathy heeded this call for help, all the while pursuing her own musical inclinations. After earning performance degrees in cello and viola da gamba from McGill, she performed with ensembles such as the Quatuor Morency and Le Consort Royall.

Her motivation to persevere as a volunteer stems in part from a desire to live and breathe the arts. "It's very important for me to live in a city where there is an orchestra, an opera company, a ballet company, and chamber music," explains the native of The Hague. "I firmly believe you can't live on bread alone."

Upon arriving in her country of adoption, Pathy was struck to observe that the arts were often perceived by Canadians as a frill reserved for a select few who had the luxury, time, inclination, and money to indulge in them. This attitude marked a strong contrast with the European mentality she was used to, where the arts were considered much more a part of daily life. Since then, Pathy has been striving to fill an apparent void and make the arts accessible to everyone, regardless of their background. "There isn't much exposure to the arts in school. Where is the next generation's appreciation of the arts supposed to come from?" asks a concerned Pathy.

A dynamic presence for over forty years

One of Pathy's long-time commitments has been to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, an organization of which she has been the president for the past fifteen years. "I am very proud of Les Grands Ballets, whose quality has improved greatly," says Pathy, who has sat on the board since 1978. Michel Labonté, Senior Vice-president of Finance, Technology and Corporate Affairs at Les Grands Ballets, is quick to credit her with much of the progress that has been made. "She is very modern in her approach to the arts and to ballet specifically," notes Labonté, who has known Pathy for 12 years. "She has clear views on where the company should be headed, and is instrumental in making sure that the chemistry works well." One of Pathy's major contributions was securing artistic leadership for the company, which, until the appointment of Lawrence Rhodes in 1989, was without an artistic director. This kind of long-term vision is also what prompted Pathy to establish an endowment fund for the company. "My ideal is to bring these organizations to the foreground and to have them flourish," explains the philanthropist.

If the enthusiasm generated by the Ladies' Morning Musical Club, Montreal's oldest chamber music society, and Brome Beaux Arts – two organizations Pathy has long held under her wing – is of any indication, it would seem that she is successful in achieving her aims. The latter, an organization which Pathy founded in 1978, is now in its 27th season of providing free chamber music concerts as a public service. Gone are the days when music and the arts were no more than a frill reserved for a select few. The ultimate fulfillment, Pathy contends, comes when she sees devotees of Brome Beaux Arts making the trek to Montreal in order to attend concerts.

Yet such gratification is not always easy to come by. "We're always short of money," sighs Pathy as she comments on the daily struggle posed by fundraising, that inescapable reality of the arts world. "Big organizations need a lot of funding. We need more support from the federal government," affirms Pathy, who also hopes the Governor General's award will be an additional feather in her cap to help tip the balance in her favour when she goes knocking on doors.

This type of work has become second nature to Pathy, who remembers being asked years ago to raise a small sum of money for a minor project. "I responded by saying, 'I don't do funding'," chuckles Pathy. Since that day, she has had ample opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade. While Pathy is far from seeing an end to her involvement with the arts, she remains sensitive to the problem of continuity, something often lacking in non-profit organizations, as Labonté points out. Undeniably, people capable of sustaining this form of commitment – "crazy, exceptional cases" to use Pathy's own words – do not grow on trees. "I say I'm going to die with my boots on, but you need to have succession," acknowledges Pathy, who is constantly on the lookout for potential candidates.

For the time being, there is no shortage of work to be done. The 2006-07 season will see Les Grands Ballets Canadiens celebrating its 50th, while 2007 marks the 100th year of the Canadian Guild of Crafts, another organization which benefits from Pathy's guidance. These are, to be sure, milestones for some of the organizations comprising Canada's arts scene, a scene she describes as developing. "Marvelous things are happening," says the optimistic volunteer. "I get my satisfaction from seeing organizations grow and develop and achieve excellence." This road to excellence is one often paved with the selfless labour of volunteers like Pathy.

(c) La Scena Musicale