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Visual arts

A storied collection

Philanthropist Michael Audain's Audain Art Museum is set to open this weekend in Whistler. But don't mistake the eponymous museum as a vanity project. The museum offers a fine overview of B.C.'s art of the past 200 years – and, as an extension, the story of B.C. itself

Michael Audain stands in front The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) – an enormous cedar dance screen by Haida master carver James Hart.

Michael Audain stands in front The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) – an enormous cedar dance screen by Haida master carver James Hart.

DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When Michael Audain first encountered Emily Carr, he was frightened. It was an image in a slide show that he saw during a boyhood visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria; he found it somehow disturbing.

"I used to have nightmares when I was young about Emily Carr," Audain told me during a recent interview. "For me as a child, Emily Carr was very scary; I was uneasy; I was affected by her art. Her landscapes made me very uneasy. What were they?"

One can argue that great art does that – it disturbs, provokes, even irritates – or deals with issues and ideas that do so. But this concept was not available to Audain when he was 9 or 10. Carr's work reminded him of another activity he spent a lot of time doing alone: walking in the dense, dark forest.

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It was many years later, during a lunchtime visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery, that Audain was struck finally by her genius. "Oh my God, this woman is really special," he thought.

Epiphanies can happen at art museums.

Today, Audain, 78, is a wildly successful real estate developer, the founder of Polygon Homes. He is also a generous arts philanthropist and a prolific and enthusiastic collector.

He and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, acquired an astonishing collection of Carr's work and this art, once nightmare-provoking, is an integral part of the realization of Audain's dream: a public gallery where he can share his collection and in doing so highlight the art of British Columbia and the Northwest Coast.

On Saturday, the Audain Art Museum opens to the public in Whistler – following a whirlwind conception and construction process that began less than 31/2 years ago.

It may be easy to dismiss a museum housing a man's private collection – and bearing his name – as a vanity project. Further, such an exercise could result in a haphazard result: disparate works of art grouped together based on the proclivities of the collector, or what looked good in his living room.

Audain himself, with no formal art education, talks about his "very untutored eye," selecting what visitors see in the museum collection.

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But there is vision in that untutored eye. Much of Audain's collecting has been fuelled by his love for his adopted home, British Columbia (he was born in England). As a result, his museum has much to say about the place.

As Ian Thom (senior curator-historical at the Vancouver Art Gallery, who served as curatorial adviser to the Audain Museum) puts it, the collection is a "vivid and pivotal window onto the rich artistic heritage of this province." Thom also points out that this is the only museum in Canada devoted to the art of a single province.

And so, along with more than 180 works of art mostly from Audain's personal collection, the museum has been gifted with a natural theme.

The Audain Art Museum is the only museum in Canada devoted to the art of a single province.

The Audain Art Museum is the only museum in Canada devoted to the art of a single province.

DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

First gallery takes your breath away

The first gallery in the museum's permanent collection space takes your breath away; people gasped as they entered the darkened room dedicated to historical First Nations and encountered The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) – an enormous cedar dance screen by Haida master carver James Hart. Salmon swim around its edges, giving life to the bear, beaver, killer whale, frog, eagle – and to us, humans. When I asked Hart how long it took him to make the piece, he responded, "Just over 10,000 years."

Commissioned for Audain's cottage, the intricate work (which, in less poetic terms, took about 31/2 years to create) dominates the gallery that also houses historical masks representing 12 First Nations of the area – Haida next to Tsimshian; Kwakwaka'wakw beside Nuxalk.

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"We're with the ancestors in this room," said Hart, motioning to the historical masks. "Some of these pieces I've seen in books growing up. And here they are."

These rare masks, acquired by Audain from the United States and Europe, used to hang in his den at home.

"I'll say good morning to them, good night to them," Audain told me in 2011. "I feel a very strong power and I think, 'What am I doing with all these guys?' And … because they're from different tribes and they've travelled long and far, I tell them: 'Well, look, you're back on the coast and as far as I'm concerned, you're never going to leave the coast again. … You'll never go on the market and be sold.' And they seem to relax."

At the museum, the historical First Nations gallery leads directly to Carr – who was so inspired by their culture. There are 24 of her works installed here currently (some watercolours will have to be rotated off display at times for conservation purposes), including The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase), which Audain bought for the record Carr price of $3.39-million in 2013 – specifically for the museum.

This gallery also contains examples of the kinds of First Nations artifacts Carr may have encountered when she travelled up the coast. In one display case, a Kwakwaka'wakw carving resembles the figure in Carr's 1923 watercolour directly opposite, Totem D'Sonoqua.

On March 12, the Audain Art Museum opens to the public in Whistler – following a whirlwind conception and construction process that began less than 3-1/2 years ago.

On March 12, the Audain Art Museum opens to the public in Whistler – following a whirlwind conception and construction process that began less than 3-1/2 years ago.

DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

After the deep green of Carr's forests, E.J. Hughes's bright, colourful depictions of marine life evoke another important aspect of this province. One painting in particular in this gallery holds deep resonance for Audain: Departure from Nanaimo depicts the Princess Victoria, the ship on which Audain travelled to Victoria when he was a boy moving there in July, 1947. (Another painting of the ship still hangs in Audain's office.)

In the next gallery filled with modernist work and work rooted in or influenced by the modernist movement, a monumental six-panel Jack Shadbolt painting, Butterfly Transformation Theme, 1981, dominates along with two substantial Bill Reid sculptures, Killer Whale and Dogfish Lady. Other works in this gallery (officially called Exploring Land, People and Ideas) include four by Group of Seven co-founder Frederick Varley, a B.C. Binning triptych, and paintings by Lawren Harris, Gordon Smith and Takao Tanabe.

The photoconceptualists, so important to Vancouver's local scene and international reputation, are represented with large-scale works by Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace and others in a large gallery space. The light box works in particular – including Rodney Graham's Cactus Fan and his diptych The Drywaller – pop and help to illuminate this area of practice for the uninitiated – perhaps tourists (who will obviously be the museum's main draw).

Another gallery is devoted to contemporary First Nations works, including walls hung with masks that both embrace tradition but also push the art form into the contemporary realm (unlike the traditional masks, they are often made not for ceremony but for display). They include a stunning Dempsey Bob yellow cedar, Northern Eagles Transformation Mask; while Beau Dick's enormous red cedar Dzunukwa Mask seems to both welcome visitors and keep fierce watch over the room.

In the final spaces, the stories weave together; contemporary artists – First Nations and later arrivals or the descendants thereof – live side by side: installations by Gathie Falk and Sonny Assu; a Brian Jungen Nike work hangs next to a Christos Dikeakos photo. The last image you have as you leave the permanent galleries and turn back for a final look is two Jungen golf-bag totems framing a large-scale Landon Mackenzie painting.

While in no way meant to be exhaustive, the museum’s boutique collection is a fine overview of B.C.’s art of the past 200 years – and, as an extension, the story of B.C. itself.

While in no way meant to be exhaustive, the museum’s boutique collection is a fine overview of B.C.’s art of the past 200 years – and, as an extension, the story of B.C. itself.

DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Audain's connection to the work is missing

The museum will also house temporary exhibitions – up to three a year. The planned opening show was to feature work by Vancouver photoconceptualist Jeff Wall, an international art world superstar. But a sudden, late cancellation left the museum scrambling. It admirably put together a show of Mexican Modernists – Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo. There are some fine and important works here (including a Rivera self-portrait that left his daughter in tears when she visited the Audain home several years ago), but these galleries felt sparsely hung compared with the dynamism of the permanent exhibition.

And there was a palpable disconnect: After the deep immersion into B.C., what were we doing in Mexico? While it would have been meaningful to open this museum with a show featuring a B.C. artist (especially Wall), the intention of the temporary space is to also feature work from elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how the museum handles this transition. Will it just be a space for interesting work? If it were somehow on-theme, it would make for a stronger experience.

The reason the Mexican modernists were selected to replace Wall is that Audain collects these works and they were available at the supremely short notice the museum had.

But this is exactly what is missing from the museum: Audain's connection to the work. Those stories – the Carr terror and epiphany, the chats with the masks, that ferry trip. Audain acquires art that has personal meaning; that speaks to him in some way. I think the missing piece here is that meaning. I know why it's not there: Audain is a modest man and despite the name on the building, he wants the spotlight off him and on the art. He wants this to be about great art from British Columbia. This has been achieved – while in no way meant to be exhaustive, this boutique collection is a fine overview of B.C.'s art of the past 200 years – and, as an extension, the story of B.C. itself. But I believe Audain's stories are an integral part of the story of this place. They are the only thing missing from an otherwise rapturous experience.

Walking through this space, it's amazing to think that all of this art once lived in Audain's house and cottage. The walls may be emptier at home (he does collect other non-B.C. art), but he's happy the work is here now. "I have a very good visual memory so I can enjoy the art by just clicking it up in my brain and I watch the image and I enjoy it that way. I don't need to see it any more," Audain told me at the media preview.

"Of course I miss living with the Emily Carrs, but I can go out in the forest and visit her there."

The Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., opens to the public on Saturday.

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