MOCA: I’m sure our audiences would like to learn more about BMO’s approach to philanthropy, and in particular the monumental commitment it’s made to arts and cultural funding across Canada and the U.S.
Nada Ristich: We fund the gamut of everything really. Supporting arts organizations is just one component of our funding portfolio, in addition to healthcare and education.
Banks can be bureaucratic—but they’re committed to philanthropy and have a long history of it. Charitable giving goes back right to the beginning of BMO’s over 200-year history, and our first recorded donation was to the Montreal General Hospital in 1835. There’s a number of institutions that we were founding supporters from the very beginning.
And actually, I have to tell you, my relationships with arts organizations are no different than the ones I have with universities, colleges, hospitals, healthcare or social services. It’s really about working with the organization to help them move their priorities forward.
It’s the same philosophy that guides a banker working with a client: how can we help you move your business forward and be more successful? I learned a lot from bankers!
(L to R) MOCA Toronto Executive Director and CEO Kathleen Bartels, Director of Corporate Donations at BMO Financial Group Nada Ristich, Chair of MOCA’s Board of Directors Brad Keast and Member of Parliament for Davenport Julie Dzerowicz at MOCA’s winter/spring 2022 exhibition opening reception.
MOCA: What is the process of assessing the many requests for funding that BMO receives?
Ristich: While there are a number of standard things you look at when working with a charitable organization, you need to approach each partnership on an individual basis. Funding objectives are different with every partner. We assess the viability of the organization. How long has it been around? How are they doing financially? How are they staffed? Who’s on the Board? How do they collaborate with others within the community? Where do they want to go?
“Open and clear communication needs to be a part of everything
MOCA: How did your long-time relationship with MOCA Toronto begin and grow?
Ristich: MOCA has always focused on what’s going on with the artists around you. I think MOCA has done an excellent job in giving young artists from different backgrounds opportunities. Which is important to us too, because it’s one of the values that we cherish at the bank. So that’s another thing that we have in common. You do have to look at those shared values.
I was introduced to David Liss by Julia Ouellette. I’m going to say 15 years ago, but it might even be longer. It was when MOCA was still at Queen and Shaw. I was impressed with their view on things: where they wanted to go, who they were supporting, and the artists they were featuring. They were looking at art in Toronto or art in Canada in a different way. What also got me was there was a massive following of young people that were always coming to the Museum.
It was fresh. It was new. They looked at artists from all different backgrounds. They were supporting them and giving them their due recognition. MOCA has always had an ear to the ground here: what’s happening on a grassroots level, they know what the artists are doing. It was also supporting young artists, which I thought was a really good thing.
It was also exciting because I was on the MOCA Board at the time when we were looking at new things and we were moving to the new location on Sterling Road. And you got to be a part of it. What did MOCA want to be down the road? It was personally satisfying to be a part of, but I also think it was a good thing for the art world.
MOCA: What gets you personally really excited about a particular artist’s practice or exhibition?
MOCA: Have you noticed any new trends in corporate philanthropy and sponsorship of the arts post-pandemic?
Ristich: It’s hard to say at this point, but I think the big issues that came out of the pandemic were tied to the economy, like job opportunities and job retraining, as well as social issues, including an increased focus on access to healthcare and affordable housing. Coupled with climate change, these are issues we’re all grappling with on a global scale and are themes that will eventually resonate with artists.
“Our philosophy has always been to have a dialogue. You have to be accessible. That’s a big part of reputation management. “
MOCA: What do you think are elements of a truly remarkable partnership with an arts organization?
Ristich: This may sound old fashioned, but it’s all about communication. It’s nothing complicated. It’s about open communication, transparency, and the exchange of ideas between partners. How can we help each other? How can we help you move forward? What do you need? What are your short-term goals? What are your long-term goals? We also have an obligation to be transparent with the organizations we work with, and be clear as to what we can and cannot do. Open and clear communication needs to be a part of everything you do.
MOCA: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring arts managers and fundraisers?
Ristich: I think quite often people just look at website to see what we fund and we don’t fund, and that’s the extent of their due diligence. But you have to find out more about that.
You have to do your homework: it’s more than just what the institution or the corporation funds. You need to start a dialogue with a funder. And that’s not always easy. I know that not everybody picks up the phone, but I think you have to be persistent. I see a lot of requests come in where they’ve spent a great deal of time writing a proposal that we aren’t going to fund. Have the conversation first before you waste your time. Quite often there’s something that peeks out of a proposal that interests me—but you have to understand why we’re a good fit. You have to have that conversation.
Our philosophy has always been to have a dialogue. You have to be accessible. That’s a big part of reputation management.
MOCA: What do you see in the future for MOCA?
Ristich: I think it’s just beginning. I think it’s just starting now. I’m very excited for the future of MOCA and what it can do—and what it will do. I also think it has an important role to play, not only in your local community where you’re situated, but also on a wider urban, national and international scale. I think it’s just at the beginning of its whole trajectory!
Images: Winter 2022 Exhibition Opening Reception, 2022. Photo by Gabriel Li / Tony Romano, Between the Lilies and the Birds, 2021. Greater Toronto Art 2021 Members Open House, October 2021. Photo by Gabriel Li / Shirin Neshat, Roja, 2016. Single-channel black and white video/audio installation. Duration: 15 minutes, 20 seconds. Edition of 6 + 1 AP. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Courtesy Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London. Installation view, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.