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A brief sketch of the man behind the art

MOU between RMOW and Michael Audain paves the way for new Whistler art museum



Michael Audain's police mug shot tells a story just as much as any of the priceless works of art he has collected over the years.

It's a small black and white snapshot of a serious young university student with close-cropped hair, a white dress shirt and a neat black tie.

A chain around his neck holds up a sign and crooked white letters spell out:


A standard issue police mug, to be sure. Only in this one, the hooded eyes draw you a little closer, offering up another clue to the man behind prisoner 20968. In that stare there's an air of defiance, a daring nonchalance, as though this prisoner knew he had done no wrong.

It's a mug shot that stops to make you think — about the man himself and how he went on to amass one of Canada's most important private art collections. About the time and place, the Deep South in the early 1960s, and about his so-called crime, eating a fried chicken dinner in the coloured section of a bus-stop diner.

And just like Michael Audain's private collection of Emily Carrs and Haida masks and Diego Riveras, it too has a place in history. Just not on the walls of his new art museum in Whistler.

"That's a long time ago," he laughed, from his office on West Broadway in Vancouver, of his time as a "Freedom Rider," the only Canadian of the 161 Freedom Riders who went to the Mississippi State Penitentiary for daring to challenge the status quo.

It may have happened half a century ago but the story of Audain's arrest offers more insight into the man behind the name that has now become inextricably linked with Whistler.

This week Michael Audain, joined in Whistler by his wife Yoshiko Karasawa, is signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Resort Municipality of Whistler, a further commitment to their plans for the small museum, tucked in the forest, that will display their impressive private art collection.

It makes Jackson, Mississippi seem even farther away. And yet, the young Audain's passion for civil liberties — he helped start UBC's civil liberties association the year after his arrest — and his passion for art are intertwined. Around the same time as he was crusading for civil rights, he was buying his first pieces of art whenever he found something he liked that fit his $50 budget.

And so the collection began.

"I think you'll find quite a bit has to do with a theme of social protest," he said.

"Great art often grapples with the problems of the world, that's what great artists often do."

There's still much work to be done before some of the great art is hanging in Whistler but this week's MOU paves the way forward.

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