Awe-Inspiring B.C. Art at the Audain Art Museum


Audain Art Museum, artist rendering, Courtesy of Patkau Architects


Whistler, B.C. is known to many as an outdoor haven, famous for its endless ski runs, epic mountain-bike trails and premier golf courses. Now, as the Audain Art Museum opens its doors, the popular resort town, just an hour north of Vancouver, is poised to become an art mecca as well. Built by philanthropists Michael Audain and Yoshiko (Yoshi) Karasawa to house and display their stunning collection of British Columbia art, the museum offers visitors an opportunity to slow down and contemplate the rich culture of the region.

Audain and Karasawa have chosen nearly 200 outstanding works from their collection — covering two centuries of art-making in the province — to establish the museum. All are on display in a handsome new building, designed by the award-winning firm Patkau Architects, and set within a spruce forest near the centre of town. From 19th-century Indigenous carvings, to 20th-century works by Emily Carr, Lawren S. Harris and Jack Shadbolt, to paintings, sculptures and photographs by such influential contemporary Canadians as Brian Jungen, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas and Ian Wallace, it is an exceptional collection. These are true masterpieces — among the best works by many of B.C.’s best artists.

A highlight of the Indigenous holdings is a collection of 19th-century Pacific Northwest Coast masks that is considered one of the most important of its kind in the world. Used for ceremonies, dances and dramatic re-enactments, many of the wooden masks have been repatriated from the U.S. and Europe. With intricately carved forms and beautiful embellishments in abalone, fur and even sea-lion whiskers, these are striking sculptures.


Emily Carr, War Canoes, Alert Bay (1912), oil on canvas, 101.5 x 84 cm. Promised Gift. Audain Collection


Some two dozen paintings and watercolours by Emily Carr offer an excellent overview of her evolution as an artist, from early works inspired by post-Impressionism to later, spiritually-imbued scenes of forests and First Nations poles. Carr’s 1912 canvas, War Canoes, Alert Bay, is a revelation for its brilliant jewel tones and lively atmosphere.

Surely one of the most spectacular contemporary works in the museum is the monumental sculpture, The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) (2010–13) by Haida artist James Hart. “It is a little bit awe-inspiring,” Michael Audain said on the phone from his Vancouver office. “I commissioned a plaque for my cottage on the B.C. coast, and never imagined what Jim ended up producing.” Measuring almost 4 metres long, and carved in cedar and yew, with abalone and mica highlights, the sculpture features a complex grouping of creatures from land, sea and sky: a massive mother bear, an eagle, ravens, killer whales and salmon, all dominating a small shaman figure in the centre. “It’s a tour de force of carving,” says Audain. “Jim Hart is one of the great living carvers.”


James Hart, The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), 2010–13, red cedar, yew wood, abalone, mica, acrylic, 332 x 479 x 35.7 cm. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa. Photo courtesy of Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery


Not all the works in the museum are from the Audain Collection. Fifteen paintings by postwar artist E.J. Hughes have been provided as a long-term loan by collectors Jacques Barbeau and Margaret Ann Owens. Hughes’ richly coloured depictions of ferries, fishing boats and loggers evoke the industriousness of coastal life in B.C.

Michael Audain has been collecting art since the early 1960s, with a particular focus on the art of B.C., where his roots stretch back 160 years. A social work graduate, onetime housing policy expert, and now a successful real estate developer, he has no formal art history education. He has certainly been an astute and refined collector, however, and is clearly passionate about the history and culture of his province, and determined in his search for excellence. He possesses a deep respect for Indigenous art as part of the same human activity as Western art. “The important thing is that these are not just artifacts,” he says. “We’re collecting them as part of a great art tradition that’s existed for thousands of years: one of the world’s most important Aboriginal art traditions.”


Edward John (E.J.) Hughes, Departure from Nanaimo (1964), oil on canvas, 143 x 120 cm. Promised Gift. Audain Collection


Audain has a long history of philanthropy and service to the visual arts. Through the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, he supports the Audain Prize for B.C. artists, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and several other Vancouver institutions. At the National Gallery, he has been Chairman of the Board of Trustees, a director of its Foundation, and a donor of major works of art, including Benjamin West’s Self-Portrait (c. 1776) and James Hart’s The Three Watchmen (2003, cast 2010). In addition to $1.5 million in varied financial contributions over the past decade, he donated $2 million to establish The Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art, which supported the purchase of Brian Jungen’s People’s Flag (2006) and Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass (2012). And, with a further $2 million endowment, he established the position of Audain Curator of Indigenous Art. In appreciation of these extraordinary contributions, the National Gallery recently named one of its exhibition spaces the Audain Gallery.


Yoshiko Karasawa and Michael Audain with Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © Photo Van Beek


Before construction began on the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Michael Audain and Yoshi Karasawa had been thinking for some time about giving away a large portion of their art collection. “We know we’re only temporary custodians of art,” says Audain. The choice of location began to take shape in the summer of 2012, when Audain was invited by Whistler consultant and longtime friend, Jim Moodie, to discuss the possibilities. Moodie was actively involved with the village council in developing a new long-term cultural strategy. He put in a call to Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who, on a warm September day, gave Audain a tour of a partially wooded site — a “wonderful parcel of land,” as he describes it. “Yoshi and I were looking for a place with indigenous landscaping, not just a city lot. We wanted trees. A lot of work in our collection, like most Canadian collections, is related to the landscape.”

As the story goes, a deal was struck virtually the same day, over a sandwich lunch, with the municipality offering a long-term lease of the land. Over the following months, Audain interviewed numerous architects. “John and Patricia Patkau, besides having a stellar reputation, seemed to understand the understated, quiet ethos that we wanted for the museum,” said Audain in an interview with art historian Ian Thom.

Construction on the museum began less than a year after that September meeting, and was completed in three. The building sits discreetly and harmoniously within the landscape. The long, dark grey structure extends into the forest in a straight line, with a small wing at the end that bends slightly. Built on piers to protect it from the flooding of nearby Fitzsimmons Creek, the museum seems to hover slightly among the bows of the trees. Visitors approach along a pedestrian bridge, and enter a warm, wood-lined space with views on one side towards a meadow.


Stan Douglas, MacLeod's Books, Vancouver (2006), ink on archival paper, 305 x 178.8 cm. Audain Art Museum Collection. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa


While construction was taking place, Audain put together a Board of Directors and an administrative team, including Executive Director, Suzanne Greening, who had previously headed The Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford, B.C.; and Chief Curator, Darrin Martens, former Director of the Nisga’a Museum in northern B.C. Audain also hired an expert in B.C. art — Ian Thom, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Senior Curator-Historical — to advise him on the selection of works for the museum. Thom also wrote the gorgeously illustrated catalogue, Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum, Whistler, to coincide with the museum’s opening.

In the coming years, Suzanne Greening hopes the museum will be well integrated into the surrounding art community. “We want to play a role in terms of the arts dialogue that is already taking place in the lower mainland,” she said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “We are in great company, with the Vancouver Art Gallery, Presentation House, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Contemporary Art Gallery.” At the same time, she expects that many of its international visitors will never make it to those other museums. “For the visitors who fly in, Whistler is their point of contact with Canada. That’s their experience with Canada.”

With its rare collection and inviting setting, the Audain Art Museum is an outstanding new addition to Canada’s cultural landscape.

The Audain Art Museum holds its grand opening on March 12, 2016. For more information please click here.

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