Paul Christensen’s mother believed that a house is not a home until it has a piano. She insisted that her children take lessons from the piano teacher down the block, he said.
Christensen believes a city is not a home until it has art and culture. That’s why the businessman and philanthropist has spent his adult life writing big checks for the arts in his hometown, especially the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“We have a marvelous symphony in this town,” he said. “It’s a much better symphony than many larger cities have. The sound they produce is magnificent.”
Cheerful and even a little boyish despite his 88 years, Christensen has won the Clark County Art Commission’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award for his arts philanthropy. He has been a key supporter of local arts organizations large and small, as well as the effort to create a performing arts center in Vancouver.
Christensen the businessman has also long been recognized as a community leader who has pushed for city redevelopment. He was named Vancouver First Citizen in 1998. But during an interview at his office in downtown Vancouver, he said that art and culture are what really drive him.
“Art exemplifies our best views of life,” he said. “Art can show us the way we would like life to be. And it can also show us the things about life that we need to rethink.”
Christensen has spent a lifetime pursuing the way things ought to be, he said.
“The fact that I had piano lessons and could read music, that probably had more effect on my life than any other thing,” he said.
He sang in school shows and traveling quartets while attending Vancouver High School and during his year at Clark College, he said. Then he joined the U.S. Army with one day left to go before G.I. Bill benefits were due to sunset, he said.
In the Army in the mid-1950s, Christensen was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. That’s where he noticed a beautiful girl singing in the choir at the American Cathedral, and auditioned into the group in order to meet her. She was Charlotte (Loti for short), a Bulgarian who had escaped war and Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. Christensen married her in Paris and brought her back to the U.S., where the couple raised three daughters.
Meaning in music
Christensen earned two bachelor’s degrees: one in philosophy at the University of Washington, another in theology at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Ordained as an Episcopal priest, he went to work at Saint Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Bellevue.
“I’ve always questioned the meaning of life,” he said. “What is life? There are many great texts that examine what makes life meaningful. Music certainly makes life meaningful.”
But after a couple of years as a priest, Christensen said, he realized his restless, questioning spirit didn’t fit organized religion. While he dislikes the word “agnostic,” Christensen said he’s convinced that it was humans who invented God, not the other way around.
“Once I came to that realization, it seemed dishonest to continue,” he said. “I still go to church occasionally, but for me real religion isn’t pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. It’s how you live your life.”
Paul and Loti Christensen eventually returned to Vancouver, where he launched the property development and management firm Realvest. Success in business enabled Christensen to pour money into his real passions, like a social-service foundation and new swimming pool for his alma mater, Hough Elementary School. The pool eventually became a liability and closed, but the Hough Foundation continues to provide assistance and enrichment for neighborhood children.
Of all his business and philanthropic pursuits, Christensen is probably best known as the best friend of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He has long served on its board and befriended the artists who keep this ambitious small-city orchestra reaching for greatness.
Christensen said he’s in awe of the talent and dedication of people like Igor Shakhman, the symphony’s manager and principal clarinetist, and Maestro Salvador Brotons, its celebrated conductor, who lives in Barcelona, Spain, and commutes to Vancouver several times a year for orchestra rehearsals and performances.
“He is a special gift. He’s a phenomenon all over the world,” said Christensen, who has visited Brotons at his home in Barcelona.
While arts and culture are thriving in Vancouver, Christensen said, he believes downtown still lacks an essential missing piece: a concert hall. The orchestra’s current base is Skyview High School’s big auditorium. While that’s an acoustically excellent room, using a shared school space is always challenging, and the location miles from downtown doesn’t help with regional attendance, Christensen said.
Christensen and others have long pushed for a Southwest Washington Center for the Arts somewhere near Esther Short Park. The envisioned facility would feature a versatile central concert hall to be a new home for the orchestra, plus smaller black box theater and art gallery. These spaces would be available to community arts groups and professional touring shows.
Although Christensen has pledged $10 million for the $60 million project with others ready to contribute, he said the effort has yet to gain traction at Vancouver City Hall.
Christensen has been a key supporter of many more nonprofit cultural and arts organizations, including the Clark County Historical Museum, Artstra, Columbia Dance, Enspire Arts, Magenta Theater and Opera Quest Northwest (which was founded as Vancouver Children’s Opera by Loti Christensen, who died in 2020).
At an award ceremony during the Feb. 21 Clark County Council meeting, local poet laureate Armin Tolentino read a new poem celebrating the way Christensen has inspired others by pursuing his dreams with joy. Clark County Arts Commission chairwoman Deborah Nagano said the lifetime achievement award usually goes to artists, but this year the group thought it was important to celebrate an “arts advocate, champion and benefactor.”
“Children and adults alike have benefited from his financial support from purchasing musical instruments, and funding lessons, to sponsoring the Vancouver Symphony,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said. “Our community is blessed to have Paul and his tireless work.”
Christensen said he never forgets what it was like to be a young piano student just learning to tap out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When Vancouver’s School of Piano Technology for the Blind was still in business, Christensen contributed to its program to save used pianos from the landfill by transporting them to homes and facilities that wanted them.
“I love getting kids to love classical music,” he said. “I love getting kids to love classical music without even knowing that it’s classical.”