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Features / September 15, 2015

Whistler Wonders: Michael Audain Builds a Museum

How longing for a distant homeland drove Michael Audain to become one of BC's biggest art collectors and patrons—and now, museum builder.

As we head north along the section of the Sea-to-Sky Highway that connects Vancouver to the Resort Municipality of Whistler, we are convinced: this is one of the most spectacular drives in the country. Carved into the granitic face of the Coast Range, the highway winds along the eastern edge of Howe Sound, granting travellers heart-stopping views of islands and fjords, of rocky beaches, dense forests and steep mountains plunging into the blue waters of the north Pacific. Until we head inland at Squamish, a former pulp- and sawmill town currently remaking itself into a recreation and commuter community, it is difficult to do anything other than gawk. Gawk and talk.

Our travelling companion on this expedition is Michael Audain, one of Canada’s most esteemed art collectors and generous cultural philanthropists. Personally and through his family foundation, Audain has donated more than $100 million to galleries, museums and universities in British Columbia. The list of exhibition spaces, teaching centres, academic chairs, curatorial positions and arts awards that he has funded and that bear his name takes up most of a printed page. He also created two substantial endowments at the National Gallery of Canada, where he has served as both member and chair of the board of trustees. The Audain Foundation was established in 1997 to support the visual arts of British Columbia, and now, on this sunny day 18 years later, we are on our way to preview its most ambitious undertaking—a $35 million art museum in Whistler.

Designed by Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and scheduled to open in early 2016, the Audain Art Museum will house a large portion of the collection of British Columbia art that Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, have assembled over the past few decades. Until now, much of the work, which ranges from rare, 19th-century First Nations masks to contemporary photographs by Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall, has been installed in the couple’s home and offices. Audain has spoken frequently in the past of the pleasures of living with the art, of getting to know it deeply, of finding new meanings in it on repeated viewings. However, he says, “There’s a time when you need to share the work with the public, so that’s what we’re doing.” “We’re creating this museum to place our work ‘for the inspection of the public,’” he says, quoting the will of Sir Francis Bourgeois, one of the founders of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. “I love that term, ‘inspection of the public.’”

As chairman of Polygon Homes Ltd., one of the most successful residential-development companies in the province, Audain is an extremely busy man, and it is his idea to combine the hour-and-a-half drive from his West Vancouver house to the Whistler museum with an interview about its inception and realization. “Yoshi and I were musing—wondering what to do with our collection—and so we developed some criteria for a museum,” he says. “We really wanted to locate it in a natural landscape because so much of the art relates to the landscape and also because of our own feelings about the world. We like living close to nature.” Other criteria included good pedestrian or public-transit access and a willingness on the part of whatever jurisdiction or government was involved to donate the land. Such a gift was important, Audain believes, to ensure ongoing public-sector commitment to the museum, which has been set up as a non-profit corporation and registered as a charity.

“The construction of the museum is being funded by the Audain Foundation. The operation will be funded by the mix of revenue generation that most art museums experience—a combination of admission fees, facility rentals, shop sales, memberships and hopefully some grants in due course,” Audain says. Importantly, it will also see income from an endowment, which the AAM board is working on growing. The Whistler site, a partially forested property on Blackcomb Way, at the end of what’s known as the Village Stroll, met all the couple’s requirements, although it was not delivered entirely free of charge. The municipality leased the land to the museum for 199 years—for a fee of $10.

An important inspiration for Audain and Karasawa was a visit to the Maeght Foundation, a private art museum near Saint-Paul de Vence, which they encountered in the early 1990s while travelling in the south of France. “We were very influenced by the nature of a small, very select collection,” Audain says. “Aimé Maeght was a Parisian art dealer—he was Riopelle’s dealer, among others—and he took some of the very best works from his personal collection and put them in a rural setting on a Provence hillside.” The Maeght Foundation building, courtyards and sculpture gardens were designed in collaboration with a number of the artists represented in the collection, including Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. The museum is renowned not only for the quality of the art it displays (“the best Riopelle that I’d ever seen,” Audain says), but also for its responsiveness to its natural location and the harmonious relationship between its interior and exterior spaces. “We talked, we said maybe one day we might want to do something like that,” Audain recalls.

In fall 2012, after publicly announcing his intention to build an art museum in Whistler, Audain returned to the Maeght Foundation to gather some more ideas about what he might want to build. “But it’s a totally different setting—it’s a beautiful, sun-drenched hillside and lovely climate, so you can have the doors open all the time,” he says. “Our architecture has to relate to the mountains and the climate and everything else.” Everything else includes heavy snowfalls and the possibility of flooding from Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs through the town and close to the museum site. Patkau has responded to those challenges by incorporating long, steeply pitched roofs into the design and mounting the building on piers.

On the way there, Audain talks about his life and times and commitment to the art and history of British Columbia. “I have a very poor memory of the 1990s to today,” he says, laughing. “But on the other hand, I have an excellent memory of the 1940s.” The first experience he recalls is as a toddler onboard a British destroyer, being evacuated with his mother and other women and children from Jersey to England as the Germans invaded the Channel Islands. He remembers being warned about the recently fired anti-aircraft guns on the deck. “Stay away from the guns, son,” a sailor told him. “They’re still hot.” Audain also recounts other anecdotes from his childhood and youth. A matron with a stopwatch timing the cold showers at one of the English boys’ schools he attended. (Twenty seconds under a dowse of cold water? How could he possibly get himself clean, we wonder. “That wasn’t the point,” he responds, deadpan.) The indignation of a teacher whom Audain, at age seven, questioned about the value of learning ancient Greek. (“Are you being impertinent, Audain? How else are you going to read your Homer in the language in which it was written?”) Wrestling in his teens with a lion cub named Winston, a pet of the legendary American actress Tallulah Bankhead—who happened to be his godmother. (“She was a drinking buddy of my father’s.”)

Although he is a proud British Columbian and counts himself as the fifth generation of his family to live in the province (his great-great-grandfather Robert Dunsmuir arrived on Vancouver Island from Scotland in 1851 as an indentured miner and died in 1889, the wealthiest man in British Columbia), Audain was born in England in 1937. His Canadian father was serving in the British army, his beautiful mother was English, the courtship was swift, and the marriage short-lived. “I think they only lived together for a few months,” Audain says. During and immediately after the war, Audain was shuttled between a series of boarding schools and temporary residences in England and Ireland before eventually moving with his father and stepmother to the West Coast of Canada—a place he vividly imagined long before he arrived here. “Ever since I was born, almost, I had a romance with British Columbia,” he has said, alluding to his father’s stories of home. Audain recounts travelling from England to the West Coast of Canada by ocean liner and train. The last leg of the journey, from Vancouver to Victoria, was on the ferry Princess Victoria, an experience Audain celebrated much later in his life by buying the 1964 E.J. Hughes painting Departure from Nanaimo, depicting the same vessel. “I was only on it once—June 20, 1946—but I have incredible memories of it. Coming to Canada was like living a dream.” It has long been our contention that that dream of place—the longing for a distant homeland whose descriptions sustained him during the difficult and unsettled early years of his life—has powerfully shaped Audain’s commitment to British Columbia’s cultural heritage.

In discussing his growing interest in the visual arts, Audain recalls the first gallery he ever entered, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, when he was 15 years old. “I saw a very large exhibition of Russian art, a historical survey all the way from the icons to Soviet Realism.” On loan from Moscow as a tribute to Britain’s war effort, the show was pretty much bereft of work by the Constructivists and other Russian modernists. What Audain most remembers, however, were 19th-century portraits by the likes of Nikolai Kuznetsov, depicting people who evoked, for him, characters out of a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky novel. “I can still remember two or three of those images—I have them imprinted on my brain.”

Not much in the way of exhibiting visual art was happening in Victoria, the sleepy British Columbia capital that was his home base from the age of nine. As for the woman who put Victoria on the art-historical map, he remembers seeing “lantern slides” of Emily Carr paintings while attending a series of Saturday-morning lectures for children in the provincial museum. “One day, all the little boys and girls were sitting on folding benches in the dark and out came these images on the screen and I didn’t know what they were,” Audain recalls. “Were they tree trunks? Were they ghosts of dead shamans? Whatever they were, they really scared me. I had nightmares about them—I couldn’t get them out of my head.” The nightmares abated, but an aversion to her work lasted into his 30s, when Audain chanced upon a Carr exhibition. It was during a business trip to Vancouver from Ottawa, where he was then living. “I spent a lunch hour at the Vancouver Art Gallery, particularly looking at her charcoal drawings, and then I started to look at her paintings and very quickly I realized, ‘Oh my god, this woman is very special.’” By then he had spent considerable time educating himself in the great art museums of London, Paris and New York. “I thought that she was just as interesting as Gauguin. If she had been living in Paris and had gone out to the Northwest Coast rainforest and returned every couple of years to show her work, she would have been discovered—celebrated for what she had achieved.” The formerly frightened child has since assembled what is regarded as the most important private collection of Emily Carr works—some two dozen oils and watercolours. He has paid record prices at auction for some of her paintings, among them War Canoes, Alert Bay (1912) and The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase) (ca. 1928–30)—and may be seen as as contributing to the stellar rise of her standing in the art world.

The family fortune having long before dissipated, Audain grew up in “genteel poverty.” He made his own fortune, but not before attending five universities in four countries, accumulating three degrees and pursuing successive careers as an airline dispatcher, a social worker, a university lecturer, an agricultural economist, a housing-policy specialist and a social-housing advocate. His early adulthood was marked by leftist political activism rather than hard-nosed capitalism and he didn’t enter business until he was 43—and then as a curious extension of his work connecting housing cooperatives with developers. Forthcoming in so many other aspects of his life, Audain is oddly reticent about how he made the radical switch from left-wing social worker to successful property developer. “I don’t spend time thinking about it,” he says. “I’m not really introspective in that sense.” Then he adds, “Most of my time is spent thinking about the future. I’m not trying to figure myself out—why various things happened in my life.” He admits, however, that he lost some friends along the way, people who thought he had betrayed his early values.

Audain has certainly made new friends since, especially in the local visual-arts community, which knows him as an extraordinarily generous patron. In the early 1960s, which coincided with the early years of his first marriage, his collecting habits were constrained by a modest income: “The first three works we acquired were a drawing by bill bissett, a small painting by Michael Morris and a painting by David Mayrs. Our [art] budget was $150 per work.” Karasawa, Audain’s second wife, whom he met in 1981, shared his enthusiasm for contemporary art from the beginning of their relationship. She grew up in a village in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, and was well schooled in art history, through the public-education system, before she arrived in Canada in 1978. “Yoshi has been generally supportive of what I acquire,” Audain says, “but she is personally most enthusiastic about Gordon Smith’s late work.” And while she seconds her husband’s desire to donate their collection to the museum in Whistler as well as to other Canadian institutions, she wants to hold onto a few paintings for her private viewing—at least for now. These include, Audain says, “an early Emily Carr, a [Rufino] Tamayo, a [Paul-Émile] Borduas, a small [Jean Paul] Lemieux and a [William] Kurelek.”

Among the highlights of the works he and Karasawa are bestowing upon the Audain Art Museum are some of the finest historic Northwest Coast First Nations masks in private hands, many of them repatriated from holdings in the United States and Europe. The Audain collection of contemporary First Nations art is also stellar, including works by Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Marianne Nicolson, Jim Hart, Sonny Assu, Dana Claxton and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The new museum will also showcase Emily Carr, of course, along with art by folk-realist Hughes, West Coast Modernists such as Smith and Jack Shadbolt, and a who’s who of leading contemporary British Columbian artists of non-Indigenous heritage. “I hope people will regard it as a boutique collection of the art of the region,” Audain says. “Nothing comprehensive.”

Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian Thom, who has been consulting with Audain on the content of the permanent exhibitions, and has written the book that will serve as catalogue to the collection, says, “It is the only museum I can think of that concentrates on one geographic area, which is what is now modern-day British Columbia.” The collection is not comprehensive, Thom agrees, but it provides “penetrating insights into the history of art in this province.”

As we arrive in Whistler, it is difficult to reconcile those insights with the initial touristy impression of the town. Often described as the premiere mountain resort in North America, with a resident population of 10,000 and some 2.7 million visitors annually, it serves its Olympic-class ski runs and hiking and cycling trails with a slew of high-end hotels, shops, restaurants and chalet-style condominiums. Audain reports that shortly after he announced his intention to build there, an artist friend phoned him and demanded to know why he had “turned his back on Vancouver” and chosen to build his museum “in that ersatz, Disney-like resort for the bourgeoisie.” Later, Audain says, the friend acknowledged that “there was a case to be made for combining an art experience with an outdoor, recreational experience, and that a wide variety of people visit Whistler.” The municipality attracts as many visitors in summer as in winter, enabling another of Audain and Karasawa’s criteria to be met: that the museum be open year-round.

As for turning his back on Vancouver, well, yes, when Audain first announced that he would be building an art museum in Whistler, the West Coast art world reacted with surprise. Many had assumed that the couple’s collection and future philanthropy would be directed to existing public galleries and museums. As well, Audain, who was a long-time trustee of the board of the Vancouver Art Gallery and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998, had been extremely vocal in promoting the cause of a new facility for the VAG and had been serving as the head of its relocation committee as well as chair of the VAG Foundation. (Recently, after he had stepped down from these positions, he was named the gallery’s honorary chairman, the first in its history.) “I’ve been involved with the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery for a long time and will continue to support both of those institutions,” he told us previously. “But we felt it would be nice for people to see our artworks in the manner that we collected and lived with them in our homes.” More pragmatically, perhaps—although Audain is too discreet to discuss it with us—funding for a new building for the VAG appears to have slowed and its relocation drive looks to be a long-term one.

By contrast, the Audain Art Museum will be up and running in what must be record time. From the announcement of plans to build a gallery to the choice of architects, the unveiling of the design, the breaking of ground, the appointment of director Suzanne Greening and curator Darrin Martens and the organization of the inaugural temporary exhibition, to the scheduled opening of the building, scarcely more than three years will have elapsed.

The building’s interior is spacious and handsomely designed, showcasing the art while also affording views of the surrounding forest and mountains. The exterior is distinguished by some unusual angles and apertures, a steel-and-glass canopy over the porch and, at the museum entrance, accessed by a ramp and bridge from the street, an aluminum and exterior-lit work by Squamish Kwakwaka’wakw artist Xwalacktun. Based on a Coast Salish legend of a great flood, it was inspired by the fact that the museum is sited—safely, of course—on an alluvial plain. Much of the exterior of the building, however, is surprisingly austere, intended to serve the art, not overwhelm it. Giving the impression that it is more roof than wall and completely clad in dark-grey metal, it has been designed to recede into its natural setting, among the fir, cedar and Engelmann spruce trees. Although it boasts 56,000 square feet of floor space, about 20,000 of that dedicated to permanent and temporary exhibitions, its environmental footprint is surprisingly small. Only one tree was removed to make way for its construction, and it is designed to LEED Gold standards.

Xwalacktun’s sculpture, catastrophic rains in Texas and Oklahoma, Fitzsimmons Creek, Coast Salish stories, stories from the Book of Genesis, too: all these cultural and geographical strands swirl around our thinking as we walk through the building-in-progress and then around its grounds. As we stand on a spot outside and slightly behind the museum, looking upwards from the alluvial plain, the shape of the building strongly evokes an ark. The metaphor takes hold. It is an ark, an immense vessel that has come to rest, not on Mount Ararat but at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain. And it is poised to open its doors and bequeath to the world its precious cargo, a stunning array of the art of British Columbia. It is the deeply loved art of this place—and the climax, perhaps, of Audain’s long journey home.

This is a feature story from the Fall 2015 issue of our magazine, Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To get every new issue of our magazine delivered to you door before it hits newsstands, subscribe now.

Note to the reader: This article has been updated from the form it originally appeared in print. The print edition stated that the exhibition “Jeff Wall: North & West” was due to open the museum, which was true at the time of publication. Since the print edition was published, that show has been pulled.