Earlier this month, the Audain Art Museum appointed Darrin Martens as chief curator of the institution, which is slated to open in fall 2015. Building from the art collection of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, the Audain Art Museum will be “British Columbia’s largest purpose-built art museum,” housing a wide range of art from the province. The museum is a notable example in the recent movement towards publically accessible galleries of private collections, and Martens’s tenure there will help define the function of these institutions on a larger scale.
He previously worked as the director of the Nisga’a Museum in Northern BC, and, prior to that, had a long stretch as the director-curator of the Burnaby Art Gallery. Through these positions, he has developed a reputation as a curator with a thoughtful approach to First Nations and historic Canadian art, and the more complicated issues that surround presenting these objects, such as repatriation.
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir spoke with Martens about the appointment, the unique demands of this institution, the art community in Whistler and his upcoming programming.
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir: What is your general sentiment entering this position? Is there a sense of excitement?
Darren Martens: Yes. In Whistler, and really throughout the Lower Mainlands and the province of British Columbia, there is a sense that this is a brand new art museum, and there aren’t that many that have come along in Canada. It’s a reason to celebrate. We’re all excited by the fact that we will have this brand new institution that will add to the cultural fabric of Canada.
CMF: What does it mean to have this large art institution opening up in Whistler, especially for the local arts community?
DM: Whistler has traditionally been categorized as a destination. It is a community where people are often coming and going, and it’s also perceived as highly commercialized. The Audain Art Museum brings in a whole new dimension because this is a public art museum. For the local art community, it really heightens the awareness of the value and significance of public museums within communities, and it also is really an opportunity to help build capacity for local artists and regional artists. Because we are such a global destination for so many people, it presents us with an interesting opportunity to have global conversations with contemporary and historical art.
CMF: The Audain Art Museum is a public museum largely based around a private collection, correct?
DM: Yes and no. The genesis of the Audain Art Museum is from the private collection of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, that is the core and the backbone of the institution. We will have six galleries dedicated to the permanent collection, but we will also have another suite of spaces that are for temporary exhibitions, that we will be utilizing to carry on the conversations from the permanent collection. So, the core of the institution is the collection that Michael and Yoshiko are giving not only to Whistler, British Columbia, but also to the world.
CMF: And are you seeing this dialogue between the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions as one of the biggest functions of your curatorial role?
DM: Very much so. I’m interested in seeing how we can drill down into the collection and pull out ideas and create larger, more interrelated dialogues with contemporary art or historical work. A “permanent collection” is a misnomer in some respects. I will be looking at ways over time that we can have the permanent collections, but tweak them. I don’t see anything as stable. It’s not a time capsule. It’s a living collection, and I’m looking at ways in which we can breathe life into it.
CMF: You worked for some time at the Burnaby Art Gallery, and at the Nisga’a Museum. Do you see the Audain Art Museum functioning differently from these institutions? And how will your past work at these institutions affect your new role?
DM: I think that my practice as a curator has been very cumulative. In Burnaby we were focused on print culture—looking at what print means, and what works on paper mean. The Nisga’a Museum experience was very different. So this is a real opportunity for me to explore that a little bit further—not to come into the museum as the colonial museum director, but instead look at ways we can create relevancy for museums within a community that has never had a museum.
Whistler has never had an art museum before. I’m looking to take what I’ve learned from the Nisga’a Museum to think through how we present this museum. It’s really about that activation. And it’s also about talking to residents about what this museum can do that other museums can’t do.
This community, in Whistler, is a community that is relatively transient. People visit, and we want to enhance that.
CMF: Do you anticipate the transience of people in Whistler affecting your programming schedule at all? Will you be working around the ebbs and flows of visitors?
DM: Having literally been in the position here for a couple of weeks, I will be interested in doing more research and finding out who is coming here. What I have heard and learned is that people are coming to Whistler because it is a unique environment, and they want to have this sort of Whistler experience, or a Canadian experience. So I think if we can tap into that and expand expectations related to Canadian, historical or contemporary artwork, we will provide people with a well-rounded approach.
CMF: I’d love to know if there are any collection highlights that you’re excited about working with, and if you have any hints about upcoming programming you can pass on to us.
DM: I’ve known aspects of Michael and Yoshiko’s collection for a number of years, and, in particular, the suite of Emily Carr works is a highlight of that institution, and will provide a wonderful opportunity for individuals to see certain aspects of her career.
The dialogue that we will be creating between the historical First Nations gallery and the contemporary First Nations gallery is also going to be wonderful.
Those two things are very special.
I have been tasked with our first temporary exhibition, and I can tell you that it will be international in scope, and relevant not only to British Columbia, but to Canada and the world. It will be worth the visit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.