Even under the cover of night, Dr. Curtis Collins was impressed the first time he saw the Audain Art Museum.
Earlier that day, he had travelled to Vancouver from his home in Edmonton to meet with Michael Audain and members of the museum's board as part of the interview process for the position of museum director. But by the time he made it to Whistler, it was 9:30 p.m.
Turns out, the award-winning building is equally eye-catching in the dark. "It blends into the trees and then suddenly pops up," Collins says, over the phone back home in Edmonton. "It's so well situated. There's so much potential for innovation with the collection and the facility."
After a three-month search, museum officials announced last week that they had chosen Collins to become their new director. The hire comes after inaugural director Suzanne Greening's contract expired and was not renewed in the fall.
"Overall, this position and this place feels like it's the perfect fit for me at this time," Collins says.
With a PhD from the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University and experience working as director or curator at art institutions from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton to the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan in Penticton, Collins' diverse range of experience helped him stand out from the four other shortlisted candidates, says Jim Moodie, chair of the museum board. Most recently, Collins served as an assistant professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
"He's very enthusiastic, he's certainly very well qualified in a number of fields," Moodie says. "He has museum management experience, he has curatorial experience, he has teaching and education experience. So those three things are unique to find in one individual. That was something that impressed us."
With the position set to start on May 1, Collins says his biggest goal will be growing attendance. "I know for a fact that Michael (Audain) and the board executives have aspirations to make this place internationally respected as an art museum, in line with places like the Maeght Foundation in France or the Bilbao in Spain. That sort of stature has been clearly articulated. I think it has all that possibility and more," he says.
As the museum nears its two-year anniversary, Moodie agrees that the goal is to draw more visitors going forward. "We're struggling a little bit to get people to actually know the museum is here. I find it surprising. I ride up on the chairlift with someone and I say, 'Have you heard about the new art museum here?' And they say, 'No, where is it?' What we're looking forward to is help with expanding the reach. Whistler has talked so long about arts and culture tourism. We'll work closely with the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre to try and broaden the number of people interested in coming to Whistler to include people who do come for culture," Moodie says.
For his part, Collins says he was drawn to the position because of the museum's permanent collection — made up of pieces from the private collection of Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa. "The collection in terms of First Nations' masks, that's an area I specialized in for the last 20 years," he says. "Similarly, painting in Canada in the 20th century, I studied in this area for quite some time. The collection is outstanding."
But art aside, Moodie says they were also pleased to find someone who was also interested in the resort's outdoor offerings. However, the board faced the same issue as every other employer in town: a tight housing market.
"He is very much an outdoor person," Moodie says. "I think, like everybody, he'll figure something out about the housing — and I think he'll fit in."
Collins echoed that sentiment. He says he's had a copy of the book Masterworks from the Audain Art Museum on his coffee table for the last two-and-a-half months. In it is an image of the trails of Lost Lake. "I look at it every day and I go, 'Wow, I'm moving to Whistler," he says. "There's a lot to offer at the museum as an experience of Whistler — and Canada. It's a matter of getting the word out."