Edward Warburg is remembered with gratitude in the American dance community for having made possible, with Lincoln Kirstein, the transplantation of George Balanchine from Europe to the US in 1933, and the founding of the School of American Ballet and the American Ballet company, a precursor of the New York City Ballet. Although lacking previous exposure to ballet, Warburg allowed his friend Kirstein's enthusiasm to persuade him of its importance as a forum for the arts, and he lent his moral support and extensive financial backing to the early stages of Balanchine's enterprise.
The son of Felix Warburg, an investment banker and arts patron, he grew up in New York City. While attending Harvard University, Warburg, along with Kirstein, a fellow classmate, was instrumental in founding the Society for Contemporary Art, a forerunner of New York's Museum of Modern Art, in 1928. Warburg was to continue his work with the visual arts, briefly as a teacher, and then in various capacities at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum Art in New York.
Warburg's own charming and self-deprecatory account of his role in the early days of Balanchine's entreprise, given in Francis Mason's book I Remember Balanchine: recollections of the ballet master by those who knew him (1991), conveys the free-wheeling, improvisatory character of those times.
Warburg was with Kirstein to meet Balanchine at the boat dock and to introduce him to New York, though they scarcely spoke a common language. He made himself generally useful in getting the School of American Ballet started, and found himself persuaded that he wanted nothing so much for his birthday as a first performance by the students in the open air at his family's estate in White Plains, New York. He became financial guarantor of the group's first tour, which collapsed at considerable cost to himself. Warburg conceived the libretto for one of Balanchine's first ballets in the US, an Ivy League college romp called Alma Mater. When Balanchine's American Ballet briefly became resident of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Warburg paid for the first Stravinsky Festival, commissioning the score for Jeu de Cartes.
As a last gesture he persuaded Kirstein's father, the founder of Filene's department store in Boston, to give money to the young company.
After that Warburg turned his attention to the art world, to relief organisations and to Jewish philanthropic groups.