The man behind B.C.’s most ambitious new art gallery

Michael Audain never wanted his name on an art museum. Then Whistler made the housing magnate and philanthropist an offer he couldn’t refuse

December 16, 2015

By Neal McLennan

It was the morning of September 21, 2012, and Whistler had never looked better. The leaves were just turning colour, the weather was unseasonably warm, and the village was buzzing with short-sleeved tourists soaking it all in. Just across the road from the gondola, a 75-year-old man quietly contemplated the municipal works yard, a utility space sandwiched between two vast public parking lots. It was in the village, but there were ample mature trees around, evoking a real sense of nature. The man liked that. A group assembled around him included the new mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, and Whistler’s chief administration officer, Mike Furey, and they discussed the site’s attributes: it had the trees, of course, but it also flanked Fitzsimmons Creek and was near the main and upper villages, yet set apart from both. Later, over trays of catered sandwiches, they discussed the topic at hand: was there a possibility that the man would locate his proposed museum in the mountain community. The mayor started the discussion: “What can we do to make this project happen?”

It was all Michael Audain needed to hear.

Fast forward to today, January 2016, when the Audain Art Museum is preparing to open its doors within a few months, an astoundingly fast 40 months after that fateful day. (By contrast, the VAG was engaged in the act of investigating the idea of a new building for over 120 months.) The stunning new 56,000-sq.-ft., Patkau-designed museum will be a raft of firsts: the first privately funded museum of this scale in the province’s history, the first art museum in Whistler, the first museum dedicated to spanning British Columbia’s art from pre-contact to modern day. Most importantly, it will be the crowning gift of man who has spent a good part of his lifetime engaged in the pursuit of philanthropy.

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Michael Audain reviews the design for his new gallery, set to open spring 2016. Image by Jonathan Cruz

Even now, as Audain discusses that day of his decision, he’s awed by how quickly it all came together. “It wasn’t more than a couple of hours after visiting that site that we decided to move ahead,” he recalls. Sitting in his comfortable but low-key office on a stretch of West Broadway best known for utilitarian doctor’s offices, he confesses that the very idea for a private museum had only been on his mind for a few months prior to that day. “I had been on the VAG relocation committee from 2006 to 2011 and it had always been my hope to see a new museum started during that time,” he says. His generous gifts to that museum—including Emily Carr’s Emily and Lizzie—and to the National Gallery in Ottawa speak to a man who clearly had no aspirations to build his own museum. But as his tenure on the museum’s board went on it became clear that a new VAG—one capable of housing his art collection—wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, and he began to think what to do with his ever-expanding collection. Ever since he bought his first piece in the early 1960s (a $25 piece by Bill Bissett) Audain has been governed by two maxims: he only buys art he can’t live without, and he has always imagined that his art would someday be enjoyed by the public.

Snippets of Audain’s 200-odd pieces had been shown in a VAG show in 2011, but the sheer scope of the collection was known only to a select few. There is of course the legendary stash of Emily Carrs he has amassed, most notably The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase), for which he quietly paid a record $3.4 million in 2013. But there is also one of the greatest private collections of northwest First Nations art and major pieces from every modern British Columbia artist from Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith to Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham. In terms of spanning the art of this province, it has only the VAG as an equal.

It was always Audain’s intention to have the massive body of works he has collected put on public display. “I’m a firm believer that we only ever have custody of great works of art,” he says. But it was clear if he wanted to be secure in the knowledge that this would be done in his lifetime, he’d have to take matters into his own hands.

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Audain made the news when he bought E.J. Hughes’s Departure from Nanaimo, which anchors a seminal collection of the artist’s work

While the idea of an eponymous gallery was never a dream for the intensely private housing magnate, in reflection he speaks of a long-held affinity for the concept of the smaller museum. As a young man, Audain visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery near London and was struck to learn that the museum was created from the bequeathment of a single large set of once privately held works.

Later, he and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, would visit the Maeght museum in Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France and likewise marvel at the completeness of a museum stemming from one family’s personal collection. The personal aspect of the collection is the sole reason his name is on the museum at all. “I had originally thought of naming it after Princess Diana,“ he recalls. “I greatly admired her bravery in teaching the world about AIDS… but I was persuaded that because the collection has such a personal bent, it would make sense to put our name on the building.” But, he quickly adds, “Who knows, one day a future board might decide to rename the building”—as if the prospect was of no import to him in the least.

But the idea of one’s own museum and the reality of building it are two very different matters. The first decision was where to locate it. The first and most obvious choice was Vancouver, but despite several meetings with City Hall and even a few inspections of potential sites, the idea went nowhere—a fact that still irks many of the city’s art lovers, who feel that the Robertson regime was insufficiently motivated to take advantage of Audain’s hugely generous gift. Other suburbs were considered and Audain even seriously investigated locating the museum in Pender Harbour, where he and Karasawa have long maintained a summer home. But there was always a catch—a slow-moving bureaucracy, a site too distant or isolated—such that by early September of 2012 the multi-million-dollar collection of art still had no serious prospect of a home. And then Audain’s longtime friend, Jim Moodie, suggested Whistler.

Audain’s company, Polygon Homes Ltd., was one of the few Vancouver builders that had never built in Whistler, and as neither Audain nor Karasawa ski, they had spent scant time in the mountain community. But Jim Moodie had long been involved in Whistler development and thought its mix of international visitors coupled with a new progressive town council should be a serious consideration, so he took it upon himself to call the new mayor.

As Nancy Wilhelm-Morden finished her conversation with Moodie she couldn’t believe her luck. She and an entirely new town council had been elected less than a year before on the platform of actively transforming the town of Whistler away from being solely reliant on the famed snowy vertical for its prosperity. “All I could think of was what a mind-boggling opportunity this was for the municipality. We had a broad goal of moving towards a more weather-independent, long-term plan and the growth of cultural tourism was going to be a cornerstone of that,” Wilhelm-Morden says. The concept of a philanthropist with one of the greatest collections in the country not only willing to donate his art but also create the building to house it could not have found a more receptive audience. “I was incredibly concerned about not letting this opportunity slip away,” she says.

Despite the initial excitement, Audain still had to find an architect, a builder, and a team of curators. Whistler leaders needed the support of council and the community, the rezoning of the property, and a way to lease it in a manner that assured the long-term tenure of the museum. It’s these sorts of details that can turn a fast-track project into a delay of, well, VAG-like proportions. But there was too much at stake for both Audain and the municipality to let that happen, so by December, Audain and Karasawa were standing in front of Whistler town council, signing the formal memorandum of understanding with Wilhelm-Morden. As the mayor put pen to paper, she whispered to Audain, “My hands are shaking,” to which he whispered back, “Mine are too.” But in short order, the land was soon rezoned and a lease drawn up. Whistler proposed 99 years; Audain said, “Put a one in front of that and it’s a deal.” An unheard-of 199-year lease at the bargain price of $100 was offered to the museum. Less than a year after Audain first laid eyes on the site, ground was broken.

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A rendering of the Audain Art Museum, a 56,000-sq.-ft. building (designed by Patkau Architects) in the middle of Whistler Village

The building that will open will be a far cry from the modest wooden structure Audain envisioned at first. For starters, it will be a lot bigger. The original plan in the memorandum called for a structure of 25,000 square feet, but Audain soon realized that while such a space could accommodate his holdings, it wouldn’t be able to host touring shows. Audain also secured the long-term loan of 15 major E.J. Hughes canvases from Vancouver’s Barbeau Owen Foundation and needed a gallery to display them. Plans were quickly modified to bring the museum up to its present 56,000 square feet. The finished product will include not just the exhibition space but also a conservator’s space and a formal Japanese tea room where Audain and Karasawa will be able to welcome visitors, and the museum its VIPs. An outdoor sculpture garden is also in the works.

For most people, overseeing such a Herculean process would be a full-time job, but it’s one Audain somehow manages while still actively involved as the chair of Polygon. He is also still the honorary chair of the VAG and is sincere in the hope that the new building will proceed (the extensive blueprints of which were sitting on his coffee table awaiting his review).

Then there is Audain’s other philanthropic local work: he and Polygon recently donated $4 million to the new location for North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery (to be renamed The Polygon Gallery and, like Whistler, also to be designed by the Patkaus). But it’s clear that the opening of the Audain Art Museum has the normally reserved man more than a little excited. When asked what impact it will have on him, he gazes at a monumental Takao Tanabe canvas on one wall and at an E.J. Hughes above his desk and a huge Robert Davidson mask around the corner and quips, with typical understatement, “I guess my office walls are going to look a little bare.”

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