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Conversation with a Visionary
Gail Asper appears in a homely peasant-styled outfit on a stage in a black-and-white photo.
Gail Asper performs in the Black Hole Theatre Company’s production of A Fine Coloured Easter Egg in 1981. // Archival photo courtesy of Black Hole Theatre Company

Gail Asper

What she did for Winnipeg with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she now wants to do for Tel Aviv. President David Barnard caught up with the philanthropist, lawyer and Black Hole Theatre alumna to talk about her next pursuit (a $400-million Jewish Museum on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea), what she learned from her mom growing up—and her dream role on Broadway.

PRESIDENT BARNARD: Letʼs talk about your new project in Tel Aviv. How will it be different from other museums?

GAIL ASPER: The intent of the World’s Jewish Museum is to chronicle Jewish world history from the perspective of impact on civilization. Seventy per cent of Jewish museums are Holocaust-related. So many of the cultural institutions we see about Jewish people are very depressing—because some of the history is depressing. But, in fact, the history is fascinating. Think about it, the Bible—and the Bible’s impact on civilization—is huge. Everything from the Ten Commandments to the concept of a Day of Rest. Thereʼs enterprise and there’s science. There hasnʼt really been anything done about Einstein. Arts and culture, literature. Comic books are a creation of Jewish writers like Stan Lee. Even fashion. Think about the blue jeans, Levi Strauss, the most ubiquitous piece of clothing in the world. And, you know, thereʼs a little Jewish story behind that. So we want to do something that celebrates Jewish history. We want people to leave this Jewish Museum laughing instead of crying.

Who do you envision as the museum visitors?

The idea is to introduce Jewish history and Jewish ideas and values to Jews, to Israelis and also to the non-Jewish world. And the other final part of this museum is a whole section on leadership and philanthropy and social justice because so many social justice movements have actually had Jewish involvement. Womenʼs rights: Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the black civil rights movements, there were a lot of Jews involved. South African anti-apartheid—many people in the Jewish community were involved with Nelson Mandela. So, we would love to have people leaving the museum thinking about how they can impact the world. Here are some examples of people whoʼve done that—what will you do? And that should be relevant to people whether theyʼre Jewish or not Jewish, because 60 per cent of visitors to Israel—of the 3 million tourists a year—are not Jewish.

You have Frank Gehry as the architect.

He’s one of the world’s top architects. We would love to have an iconic stunning structure just like we have in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Frank Gehry has designed kind of a village or cluster of buildings all in quite white stone, because Tel Aviv is known as the White City. It faces the Mediterranean on an extraordinary site. It’s a great city but it’s missing a major cultural institution and major architectural statement. This could become both the cultural and architectural iconic statement for Tel Aviv.

Tell me a little bit about your first visit to Israel.

Well, I have to thank my parents for taking us to Israel. I know a lot of Jewish people have never been. They’re nervous about going because of safety issues. My parents believed very strongly in telling us about Jewish history and introducing us to Israel. So we went in 1974. It was a year after the Yom Kippur War. So there were still remnants of tank battles and so on. It seemed very dusty and dirty. You know, it was hard to phone home and quite rudimentary, but fascinating. What had a huge impact on me was visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

I really have gotten to learn that museums are terrific educational platforms. Unlike a university, which is kind of for the elite—museums are very egalitarian. You don’t have to have a certain level of education to enjoy a museum.

How do you respond to the CMHR today?

I love it. I am so proud of it, to be honest. I am grateful to my mother and to my brothers, David and Leonard, who still said, when my father dropped dead the day that we were launching the architectural competition: “Let’s give it a try.” None of us was equipped to do this project. None of us had that entrepreneurial experience, that government relations experience. I did have a lot of fundraising experience but it still strikes me as an incredible miracle, particularly as Iʼm working on the World’s Jewish Museum project. I thought the World’s Jewish Museum would be a slam dunk. Itʼs much more challenging and now I realize how much of a slam dunk the [CMHR] was and, seriously, what a miracle it was.

I think most of us know that without your dogged determination to get that thing done, it just wouldn’t be there.

Using a quarterback analogy, if you’re running with the ball and you’ve got to throw the ball to someone, and there’s nobody there to catch the ball, I donʼt care whether you’re Tom Brady or not, you’re not going to score the touchdowns. So, you know, you can be running and trying but you have to have people to throw the ball to.

As you know, Shakespeare says, in As You Like It, that all the world is a stage, all men and women merely players. How is acting like life? Are we all actors?

Yes. Because we are in a position where we need to act. Sometimes you’re thrown in a leadership position, like when my dad died. I had been perfectly happy to be working behind him. He could be the actor; I would be the, you know, spear carrier. And then, suddenly, you have to take on a role where you’re walking into a premier’s office and maybe you’re feeling insecure or unsure. But you know you canʼt reveal that. You’ve got to go with confidence. I think this acting training does help you when youʼre not comfortable in the role that you’re being given. But you’ve got to fake it ’til you make it.

I love my dad for encouraging me to take on leadership early. I was asked to join the board at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre when I was 29 and I remember thinking: Oh, thatʼs for 55-year-old bank managers, that’s not me. And he said, “Are you crazy? Just go. Youʼll stumble. You’ll learn. And then when you’re 55 you’re going to feel like an old hat.” I absolutely believe in forcing yourself to do things that get you out of your comfort zone.

You often share what you learned from your father, Israel. What about the influence your mother, Babs, had on your life?

My mother expected us to behave with humility, be respectful to everybody, remember where you came from. She was very thrifty. So she got mad if you didnʼt turn off the lights. She didnʼt live an ostentatious lifestyle. She didnʼt believe in that and so she, you know, tried to keep us in check if we were behaving in an unseemly manner. She always had the saying: Whatever you’ve got to do, do it well. Be thorough. That was my mom.

Did you pass that on to your children?

Yes. That’s one of my big mantras. My mom also tried to get me not to swear but failed abysmally on that. I enjoy swearing. I got her to swear by the end!

What moves you?

When I see people out in the streets in the cold without a home. And they look like they’ve got a story, and you just donʼt know how they ended up here. And there but for the grace of God go you. That really tugs at my heart. Hannah Taylor (who launched the Ladybug Foundation to support the homeless) is someone I’ve been able to work with over the years. Watching her in action, how she’s actually turned that compassion into action, is inspiring. That moves me.

You are well-known in Winnipeg. Do you ever wish you weren’t?

I really wish that I could just be anonymous when it comes to my driving. This is such a small city, you cannot be a bad driver! But other than that, I donʼt mind. Iʼm trying to be on my best behaviour.

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