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visual art

Michael Audain in a handout imageJohn Lee

Wanting to see a home for his extraordinary collection built in his lifetime, and inspired by a private museum he and his wife fell in love with years ago on the French Riviera, Michael Audain has with lightning speed entered into negotiations to build an art museum in Whistler, B.C.

Audain, a developer and philanthropist who chairs the Vancouver Art Gallery Foundation and until this summer was chair of the National Gallery of Canada board, says after exploring various potential sites around B.C. – including Pender Harbour, where he owns a summer home – a municipally owned site in Whistler emerged as the right one for his collection, which includes several hundred works by artists such as Emily Carr, Jeff Wall, Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera.

While there is no "master plan" yet, Audain said in an interview on Wednesday, he is eager to get going on the project, making the announcement less than two weeks after touring Whistler with the mayor and other municipal officials, and choosing the site.

"The very act of making a public statement like this, I guess, is a form of commitment," said Audain, 75. "So we've got to get cracking on it."

Audain plans to have a B.C. architect selected by the end of the month and wants shovels in the ground next year, with completion by the end of 2014, he hopes.

This Monday, he will travel to the medieval town of Saint-Paul de Vence, near Nice, to once again visit the Maeght Foundation that he and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa visited about 20 years ago. Founded by Paris art dealer Aimé Maeght, the museum boasts works by contemporary and modern masters such as Chagall, Giacometti and Miro. Audain recalls being particularly knocked out by "the most gorgeous Riopelle that I'd ever seen." (Maeght was Jean Paul Riopelle's dealer.)

"It's a beautiful small museum in a pine forest," says Audain. "And we said well if we ever decide to do something on our own, that's the kind of natural setting that we would like."

Audain has amassed an awe-inspiring collection, as evidenced during the recent VAG exhibition, Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection. The show included some 170 works, including paintings by Carr (Audain holds the largest private collection of her work), Lawren Harris and Rivera – "one of seven or eight" Riveras he owns, Audain told The Globe at the time.

The surprise announcement, coming as the VAG fights for a new facility, has people in Vancouver's visual arts community talking, evaluating whether this is a blow for the VAG's desired move. Audain says it's not, but adds he was in a hurry.

"I should stress that this doesn't diminish in any way my determination to see the Vancouver Art Gallery get relocated. And I'll continue to be very supportive of that. But it now appears that's going to be a longer-term exercise. And given my age, here's something that I can do hopefully fairly expeditiously," said Audain, who adds he is healthy.

Audain says he broke the news to VAG director Kathleen Bartels over a recent breakfast, and she sent him an e-mail Tuesday night congratulating him and saying she was looking forward to collaborating with him. (Bartels is at the Shanghai Biennale and was not available for an interview.)

Audain is not ruling out donating works to other museums such as the VAG and the National Gallery of Canada, and he is eager to collaborate with those institutions, pointing out there will be a temporary exhibition space at his museum (which will be set up as an NGO, and thus be a public, rather than a private, gallery).

The Whistler site, directly across from the municipal hall, would be suitable to accommodate a 2,500 square metre museum, and provide park-like surroundings for outdoor art and sculpture. The municipality will donate the land, but construction will be paid for by the Audain Foundation.

The site will have to be rezoned and there are flood-proofing issues, but the file is being dealt with on a "priority basis," according to Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"This is a game-changer for Whistler and I am just absolutely thrilled," she says. "Even now the hair on my arms is standing up."

To add to Whistler's potential new cultural riches, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently moved up its nomination deadline a week to Jan. 3, positioning the Whistler Film Festival (which begins Nov. 28) as the last major venue for Oscar hopefuls to attract Academy members' attention.

"And we've been shortlisted for Iron Man Canada," the mayor adds. "This is an extraordinarily good time for us."

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