The Vancouver art world was set abuzz after news broke in early October that philanthropist, developer and art collector Michael Audain had chosen Whistler to permanently house a large portion of his renowned private collection.
"It's very major for (Whistler) and there are a lot of people in Vancouver who are disappointed it went to Whistler," says John O'Brian, a professor in the University of British Columbia's art history department. "Michael Audain has been a great support for visual arts across the country. He's been a very large supporter of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I think many of us assumed that the Vancouver Art Gallery would probably be the beneficiary of his collection."
Instead, Audain announced plans to fund the construction of a sprawling, world-class 2,500-square-metre museum in the village between parking day lots three and four. While he hasn't yet finalized which pieces from his collection of First Nations art and contemporary west coast art will make up the museum's collection, O'Brian speculates most of it will be turned over.
"It's a very good collection, a big collection and my guess is most of it will go to the museum in Whistler," he says. "Michael decided to concentrate on B.C. artists when he first started to collect. I was very impressed when I saw the ("Shore, Forest and Beyond") exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I had been to his house a couple of times and I thought the things there were wonderful, but that didn't give me a sense of just how large the collection was. This is a very significant move on his part and Whistler's part."
O'Brian, an expert on Canadian and international art, admits that, at first, he was puzzled. "I initially thought Whistler would be an unlikely place for a museum like the Audain Museum, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. He could give something to a town (that) it didn't have and make an enormous difference. He would be able to control it — of course working with the council of Whistler — to a larger degree than he would be able to do... if the collection was part of a much bigger institution. Of course, Emily Carr and painters from British Columbia were painting landscape... It made me think, 'There's more sense to this than I originally thought.'"
Meanwhile, plans to begin construction are progressing. The Audain Foundation has officially established the Audain Art Museum Foundation as a charitable organization. "Once the museum is open, it will allow the foundation to receive charitable contributions, if people want to donate art or that sort of thing," explains board member Jim Moodie.
Lord Consulting, a firm based in Toronto and New York with museum experience, also spent an "intense" two days exploring Whistler and have started putting together a business plan. "There are a whole bunch of things we're doing at the same time," Moodie says. "We also have an engineer looking at the floodplain issue. They'll be telling us their opinion on having a building in that location."
While the area could experience a flood from Fitzsimmons Creek, Moodie says the building can be designed to keep its contents from becoming damaged in the case of an emergency. "It will mean some unique design and building process, but we believe the issue is resolvable," he says.
Shortly after the announcement, Audain told the Pique he wants the building to incorporate nature into a park-like setting. To that end, the search is underway for the right architect. Moodie says they hope to announce their decision in the coming days.
"We're looking for an architect with a lot of experience and enthusiasm for this assignment. An architect that would be sensitive to things that are unique to Whistler and sensitive to what's going on inside the building," he adds.
The community might be best known for its mountain sports, but O'Brian says he believes the museum will consistently attract patrons.
"More people go to museums now than sporting events," he says. "That didn't use to happen. People are hungry to experience culture first-hand rather than second-hand... It will be used. I think it will draw a crowd.