Pierre Bourgie, Philanthropist by Wah Keung Chan
/ November 6, 2011
Flash version here.
Perhaps the stars
are aligned for businessman and philanthropist Pierre Bourgie. Six years
ago he stepped forward as the principal donor for the Pavillon Bourgie
of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a project that combined his two
artistic passions. Now he enjoys its success: in just a few short years
the Pavillion has changed the direction of music and the visual arts
It was not the first
time for Bourgie to seize a rare opportunity. In 1996, at the age of
40, he sold the family funeral home business, Urgel Bourgie, and turned
the proceeds over to finance and real estate. He attributes his good
fortune to the simple philosophy of taking a long-term outlook in life,
a value handed down among three generations of les Bourgie.
Arts and culture,
as he tells it, have always been part of the Bourgie clan. The mantle
of the family waiting room is graced by a beautifully crafted bust of
Beethoven, sculpted by his grandfather—all that remained after a 1956
fire at the main funeral home.
As a precocious first
grader of six or seven years, Bourgie began piano lessons with Sister
Thérèse Laramée at Mont Jésus-Marie. Although he dropped it after
five years (“I didn’t practise enough”), a love of music remained;
he fondly recalls playing Handel and Bach.
As a young adult,
Bourgie found ways to attend concerts for free. It helped to have an
usher girlfriend at Place des Arts; when he went away to business school
at the University of Ottawa, he dated another usher at the National
Arts Centre. Although he majored in finance, his favourite course turned
out to be an elective on Dada and Surrealism. A second painting teacher
introduced him to Stockhausen, whose Fais Voile Vers Le Soleil
led him to a love of contemporary music.
After returning home,
Bourgie worked for the family business, taking over as president at
age 32. “The funeral business is a business like any other,” he
says now. “You need people, buildings, accounting and marketing, cars
and repairs. The feedback from families motivates you. We had a social
role to play and I think we fulfilled it appropriately.”
The key to running
a good business is its people, according to Bourgie. “You have to
work with people and figure out how they feel every morning,” he asserts.
“It’s a team and you are a coach or a conductor. You have to figure
out how to make them play together and keep them happy, or else it won’t
The turning point
for Bourgie occurred in 1996, when business mergers were all the rage.
“There was interest for years, and I knew there was a sweet spot on
offer that would not be there for long.” It was a difficult decision
for the 100-year-old family business, but Bourgie’s father, who was
then 70, left it up to his son.
The timing was ideal.
At age 40, Bourgie already had a lot of business experience but still
had many good years in front of him. “It’s not a good thing to fall
in love with a business. We were lucky. It was sold to a group and they
sold it again four or five years later.”
Today the funeral
home still bears the family name “Urgel Bourgie”, a normal practice
in the industry, according to Bourgie.
Community service was something that a youthful Bourgie took up in 1986,
when he was invited to become president of the Sainte-Justine Hospital
Foundation. In 1990 he joined the board of Le Devoir and was
its president during the crisis period in 1993. He began a 10-year term
at the Contemporary Art Museum in 1993.
“We have always
contributed here and there. When we sold, my father decided to create
an educational foundation to give scholarships, and now my sister takes
care of that,” Bourgie explains.
It was during his
tenure on the board of Les Idées heureuses from 2000 to 2005 that Bourgie
realized that Montreal still lacked a concert hall for chamber music.
“Five or six years
ago, I created my own foundation to focus on music and the visual arts.
I wanted to specialize on one thing to make a difference, instead of
spreading myself all over the place,” he says. “I started to study
different projects for a new hall but it was hard to finance. Then I
heard about this project at the Museum.”
director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, told Bourgie that the
former Erskine and American Church was to be transformed into a Canadian
Art pavilion. They did not yet have a definite plan for the nave, however.
Bourgie suggested a concert hall and immediately found a willing partner
“It was then that
our family decided to make the main donation for the pavilion. At the
same time I created the Arte Musica Foundation to be in residence in
the Museum and to run the concert hall,” he recounts. He turned to
Isolde Lagacé, an advisor at the time, to head the foundation and direct
the hall on a day-to-day basis.
lead donation jump-started the fundraising for the $42.2 million project,
a sum that includes operating capital for the pavilion. The federal,
provincial and municipal governments all contributed as well, attracted
by the fact that operating funds had been guaranteed by Bourgie.
He has been hands-on
in the work of his foundation, meeting with architects and the acoustician.
He also takes part in the programming, where he looks to the Cité
de la musique for inspiration. In general he has been blown away by
the response from musicians, organizations and the public. “Initially
we planned a 40-concert year. Instead we offered 120 concerts this year
and had good programming,” says Bourgie proudly. “Maybe we could
do even better in the future and expand it further.”
to other business people is to get involved. “We need to exercise
our citizenship. For me, giving back is my homework as a citizen. A
society is the involvement and product of its people. It’s not just
politics that need changing. Imagine if everyone volunteers, how much
work we could accomplish. I see people excited by my project, and I
know I have a responsibility that comes with it. It’s fun. If you
have no responsibility, life is dull.”
for philanthropists is to go where you like it,” counsels Bourgie.
“I’m passionate about music and visual arts, and the chance to have
both in the same place, this was the luck of my life.”
This article is part
of a series recognizing volunteers, philanthropists and businesses who
have contributed to music and the arts.