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Audain endows National Gallery post to bring first-nations art to forefront

A $2-million donation by Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain to endow an Indigenous Art Curatorial Chair at the National Gallery of Canada was motivated by his desire to see indigenous artists' work in mainstream settings - and not just in galleries specializing in aboriginal art. "I think it acknowledges that they're amongst the most illustrious artists in the country and they deserve to be judged and to be enjoyed in those environments," he said.

The donation, announced yesterday, establishes the Audain Curator of Indigenous Art - a role filled by Greg Hill, an artist himself, who was appointed curator and head of the department of indigenous art in August. "This is an endowment so that sense of permanence I think really transmits to the idea of indigenous art at the gallery," Hill said.

The endowment will enable the Ottawa gallery to collect more contemporary works of indigenous art - a key objective of Audain's.

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Emerging from a meeting yesterday in which the National Gallery acquired five drawings by Norval Morrisseau, who died last week (the acquisition was unrelated to Morrisseau's death), Hill said the gallery has been "really active and really committed" to expanding its indigenous art collection, which currently stands at nearly 1,600 works (the vast majority of which are works of Inuit art).

In the past two years, the department has spent close to $1-million on the acquisition of nearly 100 works for the collection. Just last week, Hill finalized two major acquisitions: Robert Davidson's Supernatural Eye (2007) and Kent Monkman's Triumph of Mischief (2007). Both works were purchased from the artists.

Audain, who grew up on the West Coast, says his own exposure to aboriginal art early in his life helped to foster a love of visual arts and an appreciation for the natural environment. He is now a key figure in visual arts philanthropy - since the Audain Foundation was established 10 years ago, it has handed out grants to 35 organizations for projects related to the visual arts.

This is Audain's second $2-million donation to the National Gallery; last year, the gallery created the Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art. Audain also serves on the National Gallery's board of trustees. The donation was scheduled to be announced last week, but was delayed by Morrisseau's passing. It's a sad coincidence, which also carries meaning, Hill said. "Norval Morrisseau has cleared a path that I'm walking on now in terms of bringing his art and Anishnabe art out to the viewing public, out to the gallery world, being one of those very first artists to do that and really blazing a trail in that way."

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