On the labels describing many of the 200 or so artworks now adorning the Audain Art Museum are the words: "Audain Collection, Promised Gift."
Just four words to express so much generosity.
Invited to join a throng of journalists on a media walkthrough at Whistler's new $42.2-million museum on Thursday, March 3, I observed that more than a few of the 50 reporters present had flown across Canada for the presser.
The opening of this latest Canadian art gallery stokes national interest, for many reasons.
Crossing the glass-and-slate bridge that connects the elevated Audain Art Museum to Blackcomb Way, everyone is greeted by the first artwork standing sentinel outside the entrance, a five-metre high aluminum totem pole He-Yay-Meymuy that tells the Sea to Sky legend of The Big Flood.
The sculpture was created especially for the museum by Squamish Nation artist Xwalacktun, a nod to the artistic excellence in this region.
Through the doors and into the Cressey Reception Hall, where the gallery information booth and the gift shop are located, it is soon clear that the entire interior of the Audain is covered in acres of honey-coloured hemlock.
The contrast between the light interior and the dark metal extended roof exterior could not be more marked. It is the architectural equivalent of a British Columbian rainforest.
On this day, the reception hall is the press conference location. All the protagonists in this artistic story are lined up waiting to describe their chapters in what has to be one of Whistler's most extraordinary tales.
Executive director Suzanne Greening is first up and quickly introduces Michael Audain, the Vancouver property developer and art collector who has donated his life's passion project to Whistler and provided the means to build the ark to contain his treasures.
The uniqueness of the Audain Art Museum works on many levels, one of the most important being that this entire project has come together thanks to Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa's private philanthropy. Public arts funding is not currently part of the museum's budget, but a public gift-in-kind came in the form of the land made available for it by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).
Self-sufficiency is important to the organizers. The Audain Art Museum Foundation has already raised $12.6 million for a proposed $25-million capital fund that would be used to support the museum's operational budget. The latest donation came at the museum's gala opening on Saturday, March 5, with a $1-million donation from the Rossano De Cotiis family.
Collecting and loaning art is also part of the museum's plans.
In a charming display of nerves, Audain referred to the waiting Nancy Wilhelm-Morden as "lord mayor" of Whistler as he described how she and her council worked hard to secure the art museum for the resort.
She received the mistake with a laugh, and shared how she, Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey and RMOW staff negotiated the museum's Whistler location with flexibility and persistence. The site was leased to Audain for 199 years at $100 (or $10, Wilhelm-Morden isn't sure).
Curator Ian Thom of the Vancouver Art Gallery spoke next of the importance of the art and describes his early role selecting the works for the proposed museum. A friendship with the Audain family that has existed for over 20 years allows him to state with confidence that the "richness of the collection" will astonish visitors.
John Patkau of Vancouver's Patkau Architects then talks in detail about the construction of the museum, which came together in under three years, an impressive feat. Ground was broken on the site in August 2013. Some journalists sit up more than others; they are the architecture writers who have come just to see the latest work by this celebrated creator of buildings.
To date, Patkau Architects has received 15 Governor General Awards and Medals for Architecture, and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1996.
Greening came back to the stage to answer questions, and to tell the journalists that if 10 per cent of Whistler's 2.5 million annual visitors drop by they will be well pleased.
A reporter asks: "Who are the people you are trying to attract as visitors?
Greening replies: "I would say everyone."
It won't be long before we find out the response. The Audain Art Museum opens its door to the public on Saturday, March 12. A celebration and official greeting is scheduled for noon.
For those purchasing tickets for the opening weekend (on www.whistler.com/arts/audain-art-museum/), entry will be staggered so as not to overcrowd the building.
Of course, "Audain Collection, Promised Gift" is not the only status of individual artworks in the museum.
Some, like Emily Carr's masterpiece The Crazy Stair or James Hart's The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), were purchased specifically for the museum during the construction period. Audain broke the record for work by Carr when he bought The Crazy Stair at auction for $3.39 million in 2013.
The first gallery for visitors houses a priceless collection of Pacific Northwest indigenous masks that are up to 200 years old, with 12 First Nations from B.C. represented. The room was also designed to house Hart's enormous dance screen, which he completed in 2013.
Seeing it in place for the first time on the morning of the media tour, Hart, a Haida artist, says: "It's wonderful to have it with the old ancient pieces. You can't beat that. It's a real honour to be part of that, that connection to the past. The room has a nice feel."
The large screen is fully operational, and can hide live dancers within, who burst out through a door in front. It is made of red cedar with abalone, mica, acrylic, wire and yew wood.
Through to the Whistler Blackcomb Gallery and you are in a different B.C. On show are 24 works by Emily Carr covering the whole of her career, from her start in Paris to the wilderness masterpieces.
Original First Nations art from the communities Carr painted are also on display to provide context for her work, the most significant of which include The Crazy Stair and War Canoes, Alert Bay.
The next gallery houses two-dozen works by painter E.J. Hughes, 15 of which were donated by Vancouver businessman Jacques Barbeau. Hughes, known for his depictions of everyday West Coast life, was friends with Barbeau; the latter heard about the art museum plans for Whistler and reached out to Michael Audain by email.
The Teresa and Tom Gautreau Gallery, named after board members and patrons, houses modern B.C. arts, including works by Bill Reid, Jack Shadbolt and Toni Onley. The gallery also has four pieces by Group of Seven artist Fred Varley ,which includes a scene that can be seen from the Sea to Sky Highway in Dusk — Tantalus Range. There is also a major work by fellow Group of Seven member Lawren Harris.
Post-modern photo conceptualists, in which B.C. is well-represented, are next, with works by Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham.
The next gallery includes contemporary First Nations artists and non-indigenous artists and the final gallery houses the temporary exhibition of Mexican modernist masters, all on loan by Audain and Karasawa until May.
Explaining his Mexican collection to the journalists, Audain raises laughs when he says, "There is no Audain collection (at home), it's all here. We don't have anything at home now."
Its place in the firmament
Marc Mayer, the director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, has been to Whistler twice in recent months for a walkthrough of the museum, most recently at the ribbon-cutting gala on Saturday, March 5.
He says he is grateful to Michael Audain for placing it in Whistler.
"This is a place of extremely high traffic for visitors to Canada and to see a collection of this quality, of art of this quality, you come away from the experience really feeling that Whistler is a place of cultural substance, not only geographical substance," Mayer says.
He has known Audain for years; the latter was the chairman of the National's board of trustees at one point.
"I don't feel like an outsider to what has happened here. Art from Vancouver, from B.C., has been a passion of mine my whole life," Mayer says.
"I know Michael well, we stay in touch and talk and visit regularly... I had a hardhat tour of the museum and it's quite safe to say that I am blown away by all this, by the quality of the architecture, by the size of the building, by the generosity of the program."
Mayer says the Audain collection is a "fairly unique private institution in Canada." He cited the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City as a similar institution that shows the art of one province, with the exception being that it is publicly owned.
"People have been making exceptional works of art for thousands of years in British Columbia. If there was ever a place that deserved to have a museum dedicated to its own creations, it is B.C.," Mayer says.
For him, the highlights of the Audain are the Emily Carr collection and the Pacific Northwest indigenous masks.
"The masks are extraordinary," he says.
"And to understand Emily Carr you have to visit a forest in British Columbia; to really, really get her you have to visit the places and realize that she's not making this up. The museum building almost understands this. To enter you walk across the ramp and you're going into this mysterious dark space, the forest.
"Right in the middle of downtown Whistler you can have this mystical experience of mystical British Columbia."
Asked to consider the art museum's ranking in Canadian galleries, Mayer says the Audain feels like a mid-sized gallery of distinction on a national level.
"I was overwhelmed by the scale, but I first saw it empty," he says.
"If you go to Europe, private art museums are usually in someone's house... and something like that would be half or a third of the size of the Audain Art Museum. It's bigger than I'm used to seeing for private museums.
"The Audain is unique."
Michael and Yoshi
The view from the living room of Audain and Karasawa's new Whistler home shows off the reasons that the resort is so famous and well-loved — it's a direct view of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and their multiplicity of ski runs.
It's a few weeks prior to the media walkthrough. Yoshi prepares Japanese tea as the three of us discuss what's coming and how it will fit in with those ski runs.
Audain hopes visitors will see his collection and like his artistic choices as a buyer. He also wants to encourage a love of visual arts in children, thinking back to his youth. This is why under-16s will have free entry to the art museum, and special programs are to be instituted for schools.
Despite all this work in Whistler, just a part of his interest in funding arts projects throughout British Columbia and beyond, Audain is reluctant to use the word philanthropy.
"It's a term I avoid. It's a strange term, philanthropist, because it means 'lover of the world,' yet it has become a way to describe someone who has money," Audain says.
"I don't think about it very much. It's just an interest in supporting the visual arts and that has been my focus for quite a few years. We support the visual arts mostly through grants and arts organizations. It's quite different to be doing a project (like this)."
While Audain's family foundation has contributed the money to build the museum and open it, the next step will be for the operations to be handed to staff.
The businessman is never far away in the conversation, as Audain explores the needs of the museum.
"Hopefully, they will have a diverse scope of revenue from grants, admission fees, sponsorships, rentals and shop sales. We'd like the museum to be self-supporting, but with the museum's own (capital fund) foundation that has been established," he says.
"The aim is $25 million and that should throw off $1 million a year to subsidize the museum. We'll see how it works out; we don't know a lot of things. There are no comparables in Canada. The closest thing is the McMichael Museum outside of Toronto... it ran into financial difficulties and is now a Crown corporation.
"We're hoping that doesn't happen to the Audain Art Museum. We want it to be independent and self-sufficient as the years go on."
He is grateful for the support he has received in Whistler. He mentions getting excitement and interested questions from people as he goes out to dinner or shopping around the resort.
"The municipality and the building trades... everyone is supportive in a way that I haven't experienced in doing projects in any other community. It has been a very pleasant and satisfying experience," Audain says.
"I'm used to being cast as the big, bad developer... developers usually annoy people. We change communities and we're disruptive. We tear things down and clog up the roads... I don't get the feeling up here that we've annoyed anyone very much. We tried to fit in."
Asked about what the experience has been like to give her family's art to the museum, Karasawa says: "We talked about the art and what we should do. When Whistler was mentioned I was so happy (because the mountains remind her of where she grew up in Japan)... I am happy for Michael and I am happy for the (indigenous) masks to come back home."
The officials and the museum
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden first heard of an interested "businessman and a special project" a year before it was revealed that Michael Audain was thinking of establishing an art museum to house his collection in Whistler. The first attempt didn't work out, and Wilhelm-Morden thought the opportunity had passed.
She credits residents Jim Moodie and Drew Meredith for brokering the relationship and keeping it alive.
"It was truly remarkable. About 10 months later this person popped up again. Only this time, he had come back to the idea of Whistler and was very serious. I was asked, 'would I care to get staff involved in finding land for him?'" she recalls.
"At that point I was told who it was and his name didn't ring a bell for me. But I was given a catalogue for a show of his collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery and I was told this was some of the art he was considering putting in his new gallery.
"The coin immediately dropped with me and I realized this was an unbelievable opportunity. It would be such a game-changer for Whistler if we could make it happen."
Needless to say, municipal staff got seriously involved and it was Wilhelm-Morden's aim to keep the story quiet to avoid the opportunity being stolen by a more aggressive community. They finally met in Sept. 2012 and the Blackcomb Way location was selected.
"We had a sandwich and I said to him, 'Whatever we can do. This is such a spectacular opportunity for Whistler.' We shook hands," she says.
The memorandum of understanding was signed in Dec. 2012, with ground breaking on the building taking place six months later.
And now, Tourism Whistler's VP of marketing Louise Walker is preparing for the Audain Art Museum by looking at how it fits with the resort's cultural tourism plans.
She has some encouraging statistics. As of the summer of 2015, three out of four visitors to Whistler participated in at least one arts-and-culture activity. In the winter, when the skiing and snowboarding reign supreme, 35 per cent of visitors have arts-and-culture experiences. This includes music, art shows, theatre and other events.
The prospective impact of the Audain has not yet been studied.
"We've been working in collaboration with the Audain Museum to ensure we have the right messaging and that our approach is complimentary to what they are trying to achieve," Walker says.
"It reflects Whistler's mountain culture but it is definitely a new experience... there is really an opportunity to expand arts and culture for the guests. Winter guests tend to be more higher-income destination visitors, so it will be a perfect match for them.
"In the summer I believe we can attract new markets as well."
Walker says there has been buzz from both the media and visitors this winter.
The Audain team
Sitting outside Purebread bakery on a warmish winter afternoon, the Audain's chief curator Darrin Martens can be forgiven for having his cake and eating it, too.
He just recently completed the removal of the entire Audain collection from Vancouver and its delivery to the museum. The effort took three weeks and a staff of four in-house to complete the task, and it is a particular point of pride for him that nothing was damaged.
A year into his position, he says the experience has been remarkable. With the art safely on the walls, he added he felt less like an orphan.
"This is the first time I've worked for an institution where I didn't have galleries already there. But it also afforded me to think about our collection at the museum and how to present that to the public. I could also concentrate on thinking about what kind of temporary exhibitions we wanted to do," Martens says.
The time without the art allowed the staff to concentrate on behind-the-scenes work, creating the digital collection for the website. This is something older museums take years to achieve.
"We would love for everyone in the world to come to the Audain Art Museum, but we also understand they won't be able to do that. For them to connect with the art online is really, really important," he says.
"We were also able to create our collections application, which will allow visitors to go through the collection and learn about the artists and the artwork on their own handheld devices."
Asked if he had a favourite piece in the museum, Martens lists a recent purchase — Arsenal by Vancouver artist Gathie Falk, a pile of handmade snowballs made out of white-coated bronze. Made in 2015, it is an indication of the ongoing interest of Michael Audain in making purchases to round out the opening-day art collection, even at a late date.
At a later interview, Audain executive director Suzanne Greening echoes Martens in the busyness of the past few months. She refers to the delays that became necessary when it took longer than expected to install the museum's humidity and temperature control unit used to protect million-dollar artworks.
"We've had delays, yes, it happens with construction. It's challenging because all of us want to get in and do what we know how to do best," she says.
"But there was always lots to do. To do a start-up, basically there was nothing there. We had the collection, we had the design and we needed to explore how to operate as a not-for-profit, strategic planning for the board, and create our mission, vision and values. We worked on critical paths, hired staff, tweaked the design, and developed budgets."
Greening says she can't wait for the Audain to host its first big event, the Canadian Art Museum conference, which takes place from May 15 to 17.
She believes the museum will stand on its own as a Whistler destination.
"My dream is that people will come to us, not just coming for the mountain and we're the value added. That we are the value that people will come to see," she says.
"There are lots of challenges in determining how realistic that is, but I think it is very realistic by virtue of the quality of the collection. It's stunning."
Audain at a glance
Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday – 10 a.m to 5 p.m.; Thursday, Friday – 10 a.m to 9 p.m.; Tuesday – Closed.
Youth (under 16): Free
Member rates annually: $60 for individuals; $85 for families
Call to arrange
Daily Walk and Talk tours explore the masterworks in the Audain Art Museum's permanent collection. The tours are offered twice per day and last 45 minutes. More information to be released in the coming weeks.
Carrying jewelry, scarves, publications, three-dimensional pieces and toys from British Columbia.
For more information visit the Audain Art Museum or www.audainartmuseum.com.
Mexican Modernists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros and Tamayo
The first temporary exhibition at the Audain is a unique presentation of 24 masterworks by Mexican modernists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo.
The 23 paintings and one sculpture are on loan for a one-off show and belong to Audain Art Museum founders Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa; normally the works are on display at their home. The pieces are considered the only 20th-century Mexican masterworks collection in private hands in Canada.
During a media tour on March 3, Audain explains that the Mexican government does not currently allow art by Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and Tamayo to be sold abroad. Audain acquired his collection piece by piece outside of Mexico.
At the age of 17 in the 1950s, Audain took a Greyhound from his home in Victoria, B.C. to Mexico City with the sole aim of seeing Rivera's famous murals depicting the struggles of workers and revolutionary achievements.
It is one of many examples of how his love of art took Audain to new places and enriched his life, and it was the start of his fascination for Mexican modernists.
"Los Trés Grandes — Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco — all knew each other. They were all participants of the Mexican revolution between 1910 and 1920," Audain explains.
Pointing to different paintings, Audain shows his considerable knowledge of the artists by giving the background story for each painting during the media tour. He includes Rivera's time as contemporaries of Picasso and Braque in Paris, and a corresponding collage that is familiar in style to the Europeans. Sometimes the paintings came with other treasures, letters or essays about the artist or work.
One painting, the only privately owned self portrait of Rivera in the world, has a fascinating tale, says Audain. Known as Autorretrato or The Firestone Self-Portrait, it was purchased from its previous Swiss owner at a Christie's auction in New York in 2009.
"We had a wonderful encounter a number of years ago with Diego's daughter (Guadalupe Rivera Marin). She came to see us in Vancouver and when she saw this portrait, she cried," recalls Audain.
"She told me that when (painter) Frida Kahlo (Rivera's wife) saw it, she said 'Diego's painted himself like the frog he is!' We are very fortunate to have that particular painting."
Mexican Modernists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros and Tamayo runs from March 12 to May 23. Admission is included as part of the entrance fee to the museum.
Yes, it's true; only one tree was removed from the heavily forested site during the construction of the Audain Art Museum.
The museum's shape is described as being like a "hockey stick," albeit one that is raised on concrete stilts above the surrounding floodplain of nearby Fitzsimmons Creek.
The significance of the building's look can be measured in journalistic terms: at the March 3 media walkthrough, the Globe and Mail sent two journalists – their arts correspondent and their architecture writer.
"It's a simple building, which to me is a desirable thing," the Audain's architect John Patkau of Patkau Architects tells journalists.
He said the dark steel exterior was chosen to blend into the trees and keep the forest supreme.
Housing the Audain collection was the principle consideration, Patkau says, but emphasis shifted when the museum plan grew in size from 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,787 sq. m) to 56,000 sq. ft. (5,202 sq. m) to accommodate a 6,000 sq. ft. (557 sq. m) gallery space for temporary exhibitions, with a ceiling up to nine metres high.
Patkau explains that there were challenges. Along with the thick vegetation and floodplain positioning, the architects also had to take into account up to four metres of accumulated snowfall.
"The building's location and configuration is derived from the site and the opportunities provided," he says.
"(Raising it) creates all sorts of interesting relationships in terms of approaching the building by crossing a bridge; the way you can look down on what will be a (new) meadow this spring. This very extreme constraint proved to be a wonderful opportunity."
And the large entrance porch area was designed with providing performances in mind.
Patkau also described the location of the museum as a link between the Upper Village and the main village that will connect cultural and arts centres throughout Whistler. Construction on the Cultural Connector pathway to achieve this begins this year.
Those inside the Audain will look out of a long windowed corridor onto this meadow and the forest, while those outside will see a building that looks like a lit lantern in the woods at night.