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Audain finds its footing over first year of experimentation

Museum drew 55,671 visitors in its first year of operations

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To say Suzanne Greening has learned a few things in her first year as executive director of the Audain Art Museum (AAM) would be a vast understatement.

"Oh my gosh, I learned everything," she says with a laugh.

This isn't the first museum opening Greening has overseen, but it should go without saying that the Audain is a bit of a different animal. Canada's only museum dedicated solely to a province's art, the $44-million facility houses nearly 200 works spanning from pre-colonial B.C. to modern times. Oh, and it just so happens to be situated in a sports-obsessed town that only began to assert its cultural relevance in recent years.

"Culture is part of that continuum, so for us, it's not breaking down barriers but just making people aware that you may come for the skiing or mountain biking or a road race, but there's also something else here," Greening says.

The AAM recently released its financials for its inaugural year, spanning from March 2016 to March 2017, and it paints a picture of a museum still finding its footing in Whistler's cultural landscape.

"As a new art museum and as a new entity within the community of Whistler, the first year has really been an opportunity for us to try different things, and to experiment with different approaches to art," explains chief curator Darrin Martens.

In all, the AAM drew 55,671 visitors over the year, resulting in $453,331 in admissions revenue; and 2,559 memberships sold, worth $69,182 in revenues. The non-profit closed its first year with a surplus of nearly $25,000.

They're figures Greening hopes to grow in the future, as the museum learns more about what kind of exhibits and programming its guests are looking for.

"It's about finding that balanced programming," Greening says. "Museum directors talk about sometimes giving an exhibition that's easy for people to understand and they're comfortable with, and then you hit them with the hard one, something more controversial. I think for us, we're still feeling our way through that."

Along with its unrivalled permanent collection of rare historical and contemporary B.C. art, the AAM has put on six special exhibitions over the past year that would be the envy of galleries across the country and beyond.

There was the Beaverbrook's Masterworks exhibit showcasing 75 pieces by distinguished masters such as Salvador Dali, Eugene Delacroix and John Constable, a program that Martens never thought possible for a ski town like Whistler.

Shadowlands featured the work of renowned Vancouver street photographer Fred Herzog, an exhibit that Martens says appealed to the nostalgia of Lower Mainland visitors.

A retrospective of French master Henri Matisse's drawings last spring was another seeming coup for the museum, and reflects the diversity of offerings Martens is committed to showcasing for the equally eclectic range of local, regional and destination visitors who come to the Audain.

"In general, being able to offer that diversity of approaches to art is for me the highlight," he says.

The museum has also placed considerable emphasis on its public and school programming. AAM founder Michael Audain has made no secret of his goal of fostering a love of art in youth — kids 16 and under enjoy free admission — and that extends to schools across the Sea to Sky with 5,898 visits from school groups, tour visitors, VIP and media over the year.

"We've made some great headway (with school groups)," Greening says.

"The fact that children 16 and under are free, in my mind it would be an easy visit by a school and ... (we) have a very relevant program that satisfies the B.C. school curriculum."

Staff is also exploring different ways to engage with Whistler locals through a variety of exhibits and programs that should appeal to the outdoor enthusiast. Its upcoming exhibit, starting Nov. 11, is a prime example. Stone and Sky: Canada's Mountain Landscape explores how Canadian artists have interacted with "the monumentality and vastness of mountain vistas" through over 100 works of art spanning the past century and a half.

For more information, visit audainartmuseum.com.

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