The Philanthropist

March 1, 2009

Last year, on a Sunday morning, Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, discussed something they'd just heard. The Vancouver Art Gallery's director, Kathleen Bartels, was organizing a solo show of Jeff Wall's photography and wanted to amass the largest public collection of his work in the world. Audain and Karasawa thought that was a splendid idea, and within the hour, they decided to give over three of their own Jeff Wall pieces. (At auction, a Wall can go for upward of a million dollars.) That gift pushed the gallery over the edge-with 11 in its collection, it's now the global leader. Eating lunch at his usual table at Bistro Pastis, Audain (dressed to the nines in a black suit, white pocket square, and gold-rimmed bifocals) said, "It really didn't take much thought."

The Audain Foundation is chiefly concerned with stewardship over British Columbia's visual arts, and through it, Michael Audain has given more to the Vancouver Art Gallery than any other individual ($6,467,890, to be precise). He has issued a constant stream of gifts in recent years to various institutions: $2 million to the VAG for an emerging-artists acquisitions fund last year; $2 million, also last year, to UBC for the education of curators; $2 million in 2007 to the Gallery of Canada, to create an indigenous-art curatorship; $2 million in 2006, again to the Gallery of Canada, to create the contemporary Canadian art curatorship. And so on. To visual-arts institutions in Canada, Audain has given nearly $17 million.

Over a glass of white wine ("Any one," he told the server. "You pick") he described his plans for the foundation and for his extensive art collection. "Ideally, it will all be gone by the time I die." Like Warren Buffett, he finds the notion of family dynasties distasteful. His own two children stand to inherit just a few family favourites. "Everything else goes to museums. I'm just a temporary custodian of these works." A sip of Chardonnay. "You know, a significant estate tax in this country would be a very good thing."

The bulk of Audain's fortune was amassed through his work as CEO of one of the largest home builders in the region, Polygon Homes. Founded in 1980, Polygon was able to ride Vancouver's real-estate boom, but Audain has a nearly aristocratic connection to B.C. that predates that flush: his great-great-grandfather was the 19th-century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, another man well-positioned to profit from the B.C. of his time. "I was not, though, born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Audain said. "Despite what people seem to think." Spoon or no, Audain was born in the U.K. and moved, at the age of nine, to Victoria, where he matured in the shadow of Dunsmuir's Craigdarroch Castle. Post high school, he took a degree at the London School of Economics and, on returning to North America, protested the Vietnam War in Berkeley, got himself arrested by fighting racial segregation in Mississippi, and, back in Vancouver, hosted the first meeting of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in his living room (at age 25). A sense of noblesse oblige might prod Audain to hand over so sizable a share of his fortune, but it's also true he was giving back long before he was giving back cash. Besides, he won't wax that poetic. Why give away $17 million? "It makes us feel good."

It would be difficult to argue that some responsibility for the arts should not rest with the very wealthy. Between 1984 and 2005, the richest fifth of Canadians saw their net worth increase by 64 percent as the income of the poorest fifth remained stagnant; the second-poorest dropped in net worth by 11 percent. Combine this polarization of wealth with Stephen Harper's arts cuts, plus the meteoric rise in prices for high-end artwork, and it becomes clear which segment of the population must shoulder the burden. In 2004, a Hill Strategies Research report confirmed that a diminishing number of donors in Canada is responsible for more of the private funding for the arts. (Other nonprofit sectors are supported by a broader spectrum of citizens.)

Audain is generally happy with provincial arts support, saying Premier Gordon Campbell "gets it." Campbell, though, points to the American model of arts funding, which is overwhelmingly dependent on private giving. "I think we're going to see much more of that here. To be honest, in the Old World, it was all private."

In the old Old World, anyway. Modern-day Europe enjoys massive public support for the arts. The Arts Council of England, in a 1998 report on 11 countries, found that Germany spent $85 per capita on the arts. The United States spent a shocking $6. And Canada, in its stubborn balance, spent $46.

"In Vancouver," said Audain, "we'll always land somewhere between the European and American models. It's the Canadian way to be halfway between the Old and New worlds." Helping to tip us toward the American model is his foundation, which has served as a privately funded bulwark against a broader indifference (or, at least, shifting priorities in tight times).

Of course, only those blessed by the capitalist gods have the means to become major patrons. Buffett, who pledged 85 percent of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, makes no bones about the fact he's unfairly profited thanks to the American market (and Bush's tax breaks). Philanthropy is a voluntary redistribution of wealth; the wealthy could simply compound their riches generation by generation, and many do indeed prefer to build dynasties.

There's a larger dynasty to be built, though, in the city and the civic culture that one leaves behind. If Vancouver's collective real-estate boom lined the coffers of Polygon Homes, then it seems proper that Polygon's CEO now sustains a civic institution like the gallery.

But leave aside what's proper; the philanthropic funder is often the only funder available to galleries. Those who, like Stephen Harper, are concerned about what he called "creators or producers who are entirely cut off from public need or public demand" (artists, in other words, who refuse to serve as culture mills) will be pleased to know the Vancouver Art Gallery has no taxpayer money at its disposal for splurging on pricey Jeff Wall works. "We have no direct public funds to buy any art," pointed out Ian Thom, the gallery's senior curator. "The VAG has a modest-I do stress modest-endowment with which to buy works. But say one has $100,000 a year to buy art-in today's market that's not enough to buy a single top-level work."

There is something, if not suspicious, then irksome to the Canadian mind-set here, since private giving suggests mono-control. Indeed, for all the warm rhetoric surrounding philanthropic acts, they can't be called democratic. John Ralston Saul points this out in his 1997 book Reflections of a Siamese Twin: "You can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens."

This is not to say that private support for the arts must result in some tyranny of taste. It is remarkable, though, that galleries now are neither benign nor generalized reviews of art history, but are in part surveys of their donors' idiosyncrasies. "Any significant museum needs members of the public to give them art," said Thom at his gallery office. "Look at any great collection in the world; the majority has been given." This holds true in the past and the present, abroad and at home: the enormous generosity of the late Ken Thomson made the Art Gallery of Ontario a major North American museum but also made it a bizarre repository of Thomson's snuffbox collection and boxwood prayer beads (which weren't, one assumes, on the AGO's wish list).

Art institutions-like artworks themselves-don't progress by a neat evolution. They stagnate or leap forward according to the will of a surprisingly small clutch of benefactors. At our lunch, Audain broke off mid-sentence to call out to his friend Nezhat Khosrowshahi, who, with her husband, once owned the Future Shop chain. "You should write about her. She bailed out the Vancouver Symphony, you know." She responded with the sparkling laugh reserved for comrades. "But Michael, it's because of you!" she said. "I'm only trying to keep up with you."

In an email sent from Berlin, Audain said his name is on his foundation in order to "encourager les autres." (He chairs the B.C. Arts Renaissance Fund, too, where he pushes his peers to make endowments.) And there does seem to be a society-pal tone behind private giving-Khosrowshahi, for example, "bailed out" the symphony by organizing the Lovers' Ball, a fundraiser/party for the city's elite.

Naturally, it was an American who, more than anyone else, found a way to capitalize on American-style private funding. Under the eight-year tenure of Chicago-raised Bartels, the VAG has seen non-government funds (i.e., gifts and income) grow fivefold, from $1.9 million to $9.8 million. The gallery's foundation, meanwhile, has skyrocketed from $200,000 to nearly $10 million. Numbers like that allow institutions to begin functioning independent of the whims of government.

Bartels will need support from both corners to build her new gallery, which is meant to be double the current VAG's size. Audain chairs the committee that will get it for her.

Meanwhile, she works in the Robson Square gallery at a neat but brimming desk, a picture by Steven Shearer hanging above her head. It's a text-based work, with words from that old Carpenters love song: "I Won't Last A Day Without You."

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